King County hoping to close heat disparity gap in low-income areas

SEATTLE — This week’s heat wave is bringing sweltering conditions across the Pacific Northwest, but the heat doesn’t impact every neighborhood equally.

Earlier this year, King County announced it’s developing an Extreme Heat Mitigation plan to better handle heat waves.

The goal is to help people better prepare and adapt to extreme heat and find community solutions to cope with the impact of climate change.

Data from King County shows certain neighborhoods — particularly lower income ones — tend to get much hotter. And part of the county’s plan is to work on closing the heat disparity gap.

“It’s crazy. This is the crazy weather,” said Edith Rodriguez, a Kent resident who has lived in the Seattle area for the past 30 years. She says she’s noticed more heat waves that come with more intensity. “Yes, more extreme,” Rodriguez said.

Heat waves hit western Washington particularly hard because most homes still don’t have air conditioning. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 56% of homes in the Seattle metro-area didn’t have AC in 2019, the most recent American Housing Survey said.

And some neighborhoods are worse off because they tend to get much hotter. Lara Whitely Binder is King County’s climate preparedness manager.

“We definitely see in South King County we have higher temps, and areas where we see a significant overlap with low-income, health disparities,” Binder said.

A heat map of temperatures in King County taken on a July evening in 2020 shows the difference between cooler neighborhoods and hot ones spanned 20 degrees.

The hottest concentration is in South King County, with red areas dominating the map in South Seattle, Renton, Kent, and Auburn.

It has some neighbors in Kent watching out for each other.

During the last heat wave in June, Rodriguez said she lent out their window air conditioner to a family with a newborn.

“To her to keep her baby and family a little cooler and she was so grateful. And the baby so happy sleeping in the cold,” Rodriguez said.

Public Health Seattle-King County acknowledges the heat disparity.

“People in lower socioeconomic communities and people of color are frequently living in areas where the heat is more intense and there’s nowhere to go to escape it,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the county’s health officer.

During last year’s record-breaking heat wave, temperatures reached 118 degrees in the hottest areas. The Washington State Department of Health says the extreme heat killed 91 people across the state.

Last year was really bad, Rodriguez said.

“I never thought I’d see so much heat stroke in such a short period of time,” said Gabriel Debay, a Shoreline Fire paramedic in a video shared by Public Health.

One year ago, a heat wave killed more than 30 people in King County, the most fatalities from a climate-related disaster in our history. Now experts from Public Health, @KCDNRP, @KingCountyWA, & the @KCExec’s office are developing our first-ever Extreme Heat Mitigation Strategy. pic.twitter.com/1KTqo5PLo8

— Public Health - Seattle & King County (@KCPubHealth) June 27, 2022

One reason for those dramatically hotter neighborhoods is that those areas tend to have a lot more concrete  and fewer greenspaces and tree canopy. For example, Kent’s industrial business district shows noticeably fewer trees from a satellite view.

Erica Asinas is with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

Her focus is how social and political systems play a role on communities adapting to climate change.

For example, a history of segregation in the U.S. means today, more faces of color are in certain neighborhoods.

“Climate change doesn’t fall on a blank landscape. It always falls in a context. And in this country, that context is this crazy racial wealth gap where we’re seeing prevalent inequities shaped over time,” Asinas said.

Now, King County is working on its extreme heat mitigation plan to get the county better prepared -- and it includes efforts to close the heat gap.

“That process is going to include a number of options, particularly with engaging with front-line community,” Whitley-Binder said.

The county has created  a “Climate Equity Community Task Force” with more than a dozen people of all different backgrounds.

Michelle Montgomery with the University of Tacoma says including diverse voices can lead to dramatically different ideas on the table — and solutions. Montgomery is an associate professor of American Indian Studies and Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies, and her research in part focuses on climate justice and environmental ethics connected to Indigenous Peoples’ identities.

“If there was low-income housing that had more greener infrastructure, would you really need air conditioning all the time?” Montgomery said.

“What is diversity, what is inclusion and what does that mean? So for somebody that lives in Magnolia or Queen Anne, heat extreme to them might be I need a pool,” Montgomery said. “So there are different conversations about how you deal with heat,” she said.

Part of King County’s plan already includes creating more greenspace.

The “Three Million Trees Project” says tree planting will have an “emphasis on tree canopy in communities where there is the greatest need.”

Asinas points out even adding greenspace needs careful thought.

“You’re adding a public amenity - something that people want, which can increase real estate values in a particular neighborhood, and increase housing costs, and increase displacement risks,” Asinas said.

King County says they are keeping these issues in mind.

“The displacement that can happen when we make improvements in neighborhoods is a big concern for King County,” Whitley Binder said.

As King County works to get the county better prepared for extreme heat, Montgomery applauds the effort but warns to watch for caveats.

“That red spot — those outskirt communities have a voice,” Montgomery said.

King County hopes to have the extreme heat mitigation strategy planned by mid-2023.