(From left) Way Engineering helper Shawn Sultenfuss and Way Engineer first year apprentice HVAC Jose Rodriguez install an air conditioning unit in a Kenwood North apartment. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The $1.5 million public-private initiative to install about 2,400 much-needed air conditioning units in local public housing facilities is nearing completion as temperatures in San Antonio continue to rise into the summer months.

On Friday, crews began installing the final 53 air conditioners at Kenwood North Apartments, the last of 22 older San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) facilities that needed the cooling units. About a third of SAHA’s 6,000 units, most of which are reserved for low-income individuals and families, did not have air conditioning. The initiative began in May and when it’s completed by the end of July, roughly 8,000 people living in SAHA apartment buildings will be in a cooler and more comfortable living situation.

What seemed like an impossibility a year ago because of SAHA funding constraints started to become a reality earlier this year when State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), who was shocked to learn that many SAHA residents didn’t have air conditioning in older housing units, started making some phone calls.

“I just thought: one, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know and; two, we should be able to fix this; and three of all the other things we do and spend money on, these [air conditioning units] are probably something we can handle,” Bernal said at a press conference announcing the final phase of the initiative at Kenwood.

He worked with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, philanthropist and businessman Gordon Hartman, and SAHA officials to identify public and private funding to install new window units, prioritizing those for the elderly or disabled.

Their efforts helped raise the profile of the problem, Bernal said, and get it done quickly.

(from left) Gordon Hartman, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg attend a press conference announcing the final phase of the air conditioning initiative. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Nirenberg and Hartman pounced on the issue, he said, “and they figured out a very quick and elegant solution – and it’s not often that you see government working this quickly to solve a problem to completion.”

Often, policymakers and the public don’t see immediate results from the work elected officials do, Nirenberg said. “In this effort, the results are undeniable.”

Despite some roadblocks, “there was no postponing of making this a reality,” Hartman said. “Everybody wanted to make this happen.”

The City had planned on using federal grants to help fund the initiative, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would not fund window air conditioning units. So the City found $500,000 in its general fund to help.

SAHA knew that many residents did not have air conditioning, said SAHA Board Vice Chair Jessica Weaver, but didn’t have the money to install units.

“The universal sentiment among the residents … is gratitude,” Weaver said.

Residents will receive a one-time $15 coupon to offset the initial increased monthly electricity bills from CPS Energy, which will host community fairs to help show residents ways to save on energy costs. SAHA covers utility bills for elderly and disabled residents. The window units are Energy Star-certified as energy efficient.

It was important for SAHA to complete the project in July because August is the hottest month in San Antonio, when average temperatures reach 95 degrees – with triple-digit days common. Last summer was the third hottest in San Antonio’s history; there were more than 30 100-plus-degree days, Bernal said.

According to climate modeling by a University of Texas at San Antonio professor, San Antonio could see even more 100-plus-degree days by the end of the century if the rate of global warming continues.

Bernal, a former District 1 City Council member, submitted a bill during the last state legislative session that would have made air conditioning mandatory in all public housing facilities, but the bill didn’t get very far, he said.

Bernal said he would resubmit the same or a similar bill during the next session. “Don’t underestimate the value and potency of public shaming.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...