African American Alliance for Homeownership staff delivering the first cooling unit for the Heat Response Program.
African American Alliance for Homeownership staff delivering the first cooling unit for the Heat Response Program. Jason Quigley

Portlanders who are most vulnerable to the heat are starting to receive portable cooling units through the city’s Heat Response Program. The first of an estimated 15,000 units was installed on Thursday through the program, created by the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) in response to last year’s unprecedented heat wave.

“Last summer, Portlanders suffered immensely under the extreme heat emergency caused by the worsening climate crisis,” said PCEF Program Manager Sam Baraso. “We are proud of our partnership with Earth Advantage to install life-saving cooling units in the homes of heat-vulnerable Portlanders.”

Last June, record breaking temperatures killed 54 people in Multnomah County and 96 people statewide. Majority of the people who died did not have access to cooling devices like heat pumps—an energy-efficient heating and cooling device—or air conditioners, according to a county report.

In preparation for similar heat waves in the future, PCEF staff created the Heat Response Program, which aims to distribute 15,000 cooling units to homeowners and renters over the next five years.

While originally praised as a quick solution to a lack of heat resilient infrastructure in Portland, the Heat Response Program and PCEF fell under scrutiny when an Oregonian investigation revealed the $12 million grant to facilitate the program was awarded to an organization whose director, Linda Woodley, was convicted of bankruptcy and tax fraud in 1997. The investigation also alleged that Woodley misrepresented her work history in her grant application.

Following public scrutiny, Portland City Council rescinded the grant from Woodley’s organization and awarded it to Earth Advantage, a clean energy nonprofit whose background could be verified. Following the controversy, PCEF developed an additional risk assessment process for grantees and Woodley sued the city for defamation.

Despite the delays caused by changing facilitators, the Heat Response Program was still able to meet its goal of starting the first round of distribution this month. Earth Advantage plans to distribute 3,007 heat pumps this summer by partnering with seven community organizations and housing providers who already have relationships with Portlanders who are vulnerable to the heat. The partners include transitional housing coordinator Central City Concern, environmental justice organization Verde, and Reach CDC, an affordable housing provider. Reach CDC is currently being sued by a group of elderly tenants who allege the organization has not kept their apartment complex in habitable condition.

The units are being distributed to the community partners’ pre-existing clients according to eligibility and need, and there is no sign-up for the program.

The program’s first heat pump was distributed through the African American Alliance for Homeownership (AAAH), an organization that aims to promote Black homeownership in Portland through financial counseling.

“The heat wave last summer revealed that many homes were simply not built for the extreme heat we experienced,” said AAAH program manager Isaiah Kamrar in a press release. “This Heat Response Program will be able to serve as a bridge to greater climate resilience within Portland’s African American community by addressing the urgent, life-threatening challenge of climate change.”