Heat Vulnerability Index – at risk public housing residents in Brownsville

The NYC Department of Health and Hygiene’s Heat Vulnerability Index ranks neighborhoods based on cases of heat-related illness or death. The New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal states that when a tenant purchases the air conditioner, the owner is allowed to collect a $5 per-month surcharge for each unit installed. Austin Law explains the policy challenges facing public housing residents in vulnerable areas such as Brownsville. This is one of four articles in Unbuilt Labs’ Research Package “New York’s Green New Deal” by Austin Law.

Environmental justice is not something new within the sphere of New York legislation. For example, New York City has previously passed the Environmental Justice Study Bill, Into 359 and the Environmental Justice Policy Bill, Into 889, with the purpose of identifying environmental justice areas within the city and providing guidance on environmental justice considerations to decisionmakers. [1] Like previous legislation, the CLCPA’s provision, dedicating 35-40% of the benefits of spending under this act to environmental justice, clearly recognizes that attention and resources are needed to assist disadvantaged communities as climate change becomes a more serious problem. Even though this provision has yet to take form, the problems it aims to address have already, and continue to, plague neighborhoods throughout New York City. Brownsville, for example, is a neighborhood that likely fits under the act’s meaning of “disadvantaged,” and it exemplifies how disadvantaged neighborhoods suffer a disproportionate impact of climate change.

Brownsville (BK 16)

The CLCPA’s language describes “disadvantaged communities” as ones that “are of low income, high unemployment, high rent burden, low levels of home ownership, low levels of educational attainment, or members of groups that have historically experienced discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity.”

Based on a 2018 Community Health Profile conducted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Brownsville likely falls into this description. The profile states that 14% of residents are unemployed, whereas the average unemployment rate in Brooklyn and New York City overall is 9%. In addition, 28% of Brownsville’s residents live in poverty (the average poverty rate in Brooklyn is 21% and the citywide rate is 20%). This can be partially explained by the rent burden, as 38.5% of renter households spent more than 50% of household income on rent, placing it as the fifth most rent burdened neighborhood in NYC. Furthermore, only 1% of the population is white and over one-quarter of adults have not completed high school.

Impact of Heat

The NYC Department of Health and Hygiene has created a Heat Vulnerability Index that ranks neighborhoods based on cases of heat-related illness or death. Even in situations where heat is not the direct cause of death, it can exacerbate underlying cardiovascular conditions. According to the index, every neighborhood is at risk to some degree, however, residents who are most vulnerable generally have less access to home air conditioning, less green space, hotter surface temperatures, are low income, and are older or have existing chronic conditions. Under this index, Brownsville ranks 5, the highest possible score, placing it among the twelve most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods in all of NYC’s fifty-one districts.

The primary cause of heat-related deaths is lack of air conditioning. The NYC Department of Health and Hygiene has found that of those who died of heat-related illness between 2008-2011, none had a working air conditioner. Access varies by neighborhood; on average 91% of all households in NYC have access to air conditioning. However, in Brownsville, the percentage drops to 71%[2]. This can partially be attributed to poverty in Brownsville, where, in 2019 23.2% (8,613 units in total) of rental units belong to public housing. Only 50% of New York City Housing Authority’s units have air conditioning. While residents are free to purchase their own,  the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal states that when a tenant purchases the air conditioner, the owner is allowed to collect a $5 per-month surcharge for each unit installed. Additionally, in leases agreements where the owner pays for electricity (often the case in public housing leases), the owner is allowed to collect an additional surcharge accounting for the increase in electricity consumption. Even if the owner provides the air-conditioning, the owner is permitted to collect an Individual Apartment Improvement rent increase.

For low-income residents in public housing, perhaps these surcharges make ownership of air conditioning prohibitive. However, infrastructure and the dated public housing units contribute to the problem as well. According to a 2019 report by Data for Progress, “[New York City Housing Authority] units use 40%-50% more energy per square foot than the median New York City multi-family building.” As a result, residents in poverty are greatly affected by the impact of rising temperatures attributable to climate change. Low income residents have no other option besides public housing. Energy-inefficient units used for public housing consume more energy for amenities like air conditioning, and in turn, these costs are passed down to the financially insecure tenants, whose inability to afford air conditioning exposes them to the impacts of heat.

Browse the research package “New York’s Green New Deal” by Austin Law:


[1]It is worth noting that other pieces of sustainability legislation, while not directly advocating for environmental justice, nonetheless show consideration for vulnerable communities. For example, the Bag Waste Reduction Law, mandating a five-cent bag fee for single use plastic bags, considers how an excess of plastic bags end up in waste processing plants, which are generally in close proximity with low-income neighborhoods.

[2] A 2018 community health profile indicated that 7 out of 10 households in Brownsville have a working air conditioner https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/data/2018chp-bk16.pdf

About the author

Austin Law

Austin Law, Summer Policy Analyst


Austin is currently pursuing a J.D. and comes from a background in Business Management and Economics. As an undergraduate, he designed and conducted statistical research on the effectiveness of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a commercial bank bailout enacted in the 2008 financial crisis. At Unbuilt Labs, Austin’s project considers the New York State’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. He will be looking at how sustainability-focused funding and its legislation affect disadvantaged communities. Having worked in both a boutique firm and a top 60 firm in the National Law Journal 500, he has experience with asylum seeking policies and insurance litigation practices. His most recent overseas trip was to his birthplace, Hong Kong, where he spent time teaching children English. He has also helped Make-A-Wish foundation’s Suffolk County Chapter fundraiser for their holiday campaign.

  • Cornell Law School, J.D. Law ‘22
  • Stony Brook University, B.S. (Hons) Business Management and Economics ‘18