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Major union calls for air conditioning at large public apartment buildings

Two deaths during the historic heat wave happened in high-rise buildings with no central air conditioning.

PORTLAND, Oregon — The Service Employees International Union 503 (SEIU 503), which represents 72,000 workers in Oregon, including home health care workers, is calling for central air conditioning to be installed in multi-story public housing apartment buildings.

During the worst of the late June heat wave, a home health care worker told KGW news, a client's apartment on the sixth floor of a building called Northwest Tower was 109 degrees inside. The building has no central air conditioning.

Northwest Tower is owned by Home Forward, a public agency and the largest provider of affordable housing in Oregon. It serves the poor and the vulnerable.

Three deaths at Home Forward properties are suspected to be connected to the heat wave.

“I think it’s a really big problem that we need to address,” said Melissa Unger, Executive Director of SEIU 503.

Home Forward owns 72 buildings including many in the greater Portland area. Only one of those buildings has central air conditioning and most of them were built before it was added.

RELATED: 'Makes me shake and cry': Residents of SE Portland affordable housing complex say elderly neighbor died because of heat

In Multnomah County alone, 72 people died in their homes and the majority of them did not have fans or air conditioning, according to the Oregon State medical examiner. As of Thursday, a total of 116 Oregonians have died heat-related deaths.

Unger said it is common sense that central air conditioning should be added now.

“Making sure the housing and the buildings that we are doing for our most vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities, that it has air conditioning is, I think really important,” she said.

Michael Buonocore, the executive director of Home Forward, said the agency will not install central air in any of the buildings. KGW asked him to explain the reason for that.

“It’s an important question and it harkens to my earlier answer about the exercise we have to go through in terms of figuring out, you know, all of the possible disaster scenarios that we have to prepare for and what investment is required to do that,” he said.

Buonocore said Home Forward is retrofitting its buildings to withstand earthquakes and suggested there simply is not enough money for something like central air.

“This really reflects the degree to which we prioritize making these investments in our own citizens as a country. And we need to do better,” he said.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran is an emergency room doctor and knows better than most the danger that 109-degree apartment posed.

“Absolutely. That is, that is horrifying. And that is exactly the kind of situation we need to be able to identify and prevent where we can,” she said.

Meieran said she is not yet ready to call for air conditioning in housing like Northwest Tower.

“While we look at more of these events there is absolutely, will be a need I think for more air conditioning units, both wall units and central air. But what’s really important is to take a step back and analyze where that would be the most appropriate and effective response,” she said.

Meieran waiting for a county report that will look at what went right and what went wrong during the deadliest heat wave in Oregon history.

KGW news wants to tell the stories of those who died during the heatwave. If you know someone who died, please help us by contacting newsdesk@kgw.com or calling 503-226-5000.

Have a comment or story idea for Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com

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