What it’s like to work in 115 degree weather in Phoenix

PHOENIX – As the sun rose on another record-breaking day, Juan Gutierrez and his construction crew were already sweating through their long-sleeved shirts. It was 91 degrees and workers at a subdivision called Desert Oasis were rushing to assemble the $ 380,000 wooden skeletons of homes that were sold before they were even built.

“Your skin is falling off, you have to cover everything,” said Mr. Gutierrez, 22, who has been undocumented since arriving in the United States at the age of 4. “It’s a job you have to do. You do not have a choice.”

Across the West, housing markets and temperatures are both very hot. A punitive spring of drought, wildfires and record heat is amplifying questions about the livability of the southwest in a rapidly warming climate. But that hasn’t done much to slow the rapid growth of cities like Phoenix, where newcomers are fueling a building frenzy – as well as rising housing costs that leave many residents desperate to find a place to stay. can afford to live.

The result: a double heat and housing crisis with a stifling toll hits the hardest on people who have no choice but to endure the sun and those who cannot afford the housing boom that is fueling the economy. .

Construction workers and landscapers whose sweat fuels growth don’t have the option of working in an air-conditioned office. Instead, they say they’re worried about passing out or dying on the job because 115-degree days come earlier and become more and more common.

As housing costs rise, more and more people find themselves on the streets baking or being forced to make agonizing choices: pay the rent or pay the summer utility bills? Renting an apartment with reliable air conditioning or living in a cheaper caravan roasting in the sun?

“The extreme heat has made the problems we have all the more obvious,” said Melissa Guardaro, assistant research professor at the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University.

Being homeless in an era of mega heat waves is particularly deadly, as homelessness accounted for half of last year’s record 323 heat-related deaths in the Phoenix area. The homeless population has increased during the pandemic, and activists now fear that an expiring moratorium on evictions will mean others will lose their homes in the height of summer.

The heat is already suspected in 20 deaths this year in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, with the deadliest months to come.

As the temperature hit a record 118 degrees last Thursday and spiked throughout the week, people who sweat, work and struggle through the dawn-to-dark heat said they longed for a relief from it all.

After starting work before dawn to escape some of the heat, Mr. Gutierrez and his fellow construction crew descended from a rooftop in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Ariz., To resume their breath. They drank a few bottles of electrolyte solution and sports drinks. The work is abundant these days, but also brutal.

Home prices around Phoenix have risen 30% over the past year to a median of $ 390,000, and homes are selling faster than last year. Tech workers and others who can work remotely have flocked to the southwest during the pandemic, as have manufacturing jobs, creating a voracious appetite for housing.

“We have so many people who want homes in this community,” said Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix.

Mr. Gutierrez and his crew sometimes drive two hours to reach the new subdivisions that go deeper into the desert. As the sun was setting, they put on gaiters and woven hats, but it didn’t help much.

One of the crew members felt dizzy and almost fell from a roof the other afternoon. Not even a bush was left in the newly cleared desert where houses were now blooming, so they huddled for shade under the rafters of unfinished houses. The work paid $ 15 to $ 20 an hour.

“When it’s difficult, you think of another job,” said Joaquin Robledo, 24, who, like the other crew members, had immigrated from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. “But you can’t look for another job because you don’t have papers.”

Julio Terrazas, 47, and a dozen day laborers stood in the parking lot of a Home Depot on the east side of Phoenix, shouting “Work? Work? ”As vans drove past them.

Their daily routine of planting trees, spreading gravel and renovating homes can become unbearable in the heat of summer, said Terrazas and other workers. Some bosses offer them shade, cold water, sandwiches and generous breaks. Others force workers to drink from backyard taps and scream if the men sit for more than five minutes, they said.

But Mr Terrazas said his summer utility bills were $ 400, so he must have suffered. But he had one wish: if only he had applied for a part-time job at Home Depot.

“I would love to work indoors with them,” he said.

José Castro hid in a small shady park in downtown Phoenix where he slept and pulled out a precious wad of papers: an application for a subsidized apartment for his family. He said he spent hours waiting in the sun at a Phoenix homelessness center to get the request.

Mr Castro, 30, said his family lost their two-bedroom apartment after the pandemic hit and he and his wife lost hours on their warehouse and office cleaning jobs, sending them to a financial fall.

Rents in Phoenix rose about 8% during the pandemic, the highest number of any major city, according to real estate site Zillow. Mr. Castro said he could no longer afford the $ 1,100 demanded by homeowners in his old neighborhood.

So his wife and children, now homeless, stayed in a garage without air conditioning with their parents. He floats between the apartments of his relatives, the shelter beds and the street. He implores convenience store clerks for cups of ice cream and gets free bottled water from homeless workers.

But cooling off is almost impossible. Volunteers armed with maps are expected to take to the streets of Phoenix soon to monitor people and guide them to cooling centers, but Mr Castro said he knew nothing of the 89 air-conditioned cooling centers operating in the county. The borrowed flip phone he uses during the day was useless in trying to find maps online showing free water and heat-proof tents.

“I didn’t even know they had cooling centers,” Mr. Castro said.

Experts who have studied how the heat affects Arizona’s most vulnerable people said the needs were only increasing.

“We have this perfect storm happening here of an affordable housing crisis, high eviction rates, huge burdens on energy bills, Covid,” said Stacey Champion, who is part of a new heat activist movement urging governments to do more to plan and protect people.

Theresa Reyas, 49, parked her coolers on a downtown sidewalk, sat down and started selling. She must have earned $ 85 that afternoon to pay another day’s rent at the EZ Inn, where she has lived since leaving her husband.

Coke? Jet? The water? she asked passers-by. People working in air-conditioned office parks or relaxing by their pools might not need $ 1 sodas, she explained. But in the warmer, less shaded areas of Phoenix, they would sell.

“Every year it gets hotter and hotter,” she said. “You have to go where the people are. You have to go where it’s hot.

As the heat waves get fiercer and the heat-trapped cities move further and further away, the desert nights don’t get colder like they once did. And air conditioning bills are more expensive than ever. As the sun set over the town of Mesa, John Nyre, 70, put out his trailer window and went to watch reruns of an 80s mystery series with his friend Gloria Ellis.

Both worry about their electricity bills and try to run their air conditioners as little and as low as possible. Mrs. Ellis sets hers to 77 degrees. Mr. Nyre’s trailer cooks at 95 degrees some evenings when he comes home.

People living in caravans are at increased risk of dying indoors, and Mr Nyre said a neighbor of his was found dead two summers ago. Friends spend time in cool grocery stores, but said a nearby senior center where they once went to freshen up remains largely closed due to the pandemic.

“It’s not easy,” Ms. Ellis said. “There’s not much you can do. “

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