Scorching hot in Phoenix: What it’s like to work in 115 degrees
By Jack Healy and Juan Arredondo
As the sun rose on another day of record-breaking heat, Juan Gutierrez and his construction crew were already sweating through their long-sleeve shirts. It was 91 degrees, and workers in a subdivision called Desert Oasis were racing to nail together the wooden skeletons of $380,000 homes that had sold before they were even built.
“Your skin falls off, you have to cover up everything,” said Gutierrez, 22, who has been without legal status since he came to the United States as a 4-year-old. “It’s work you have to do. You have no choice.”
Across the West, housing markets and temperatures are both scorching hot. A punishing spring of drought, wildfires and record-shattering heat is amplifying questions about the habitability of the Southwest in a rapidly warming climate. But it has done little to slow the rapid growth of cities like Phoenix, where new arrivals are fueling a construction frenzy — as well as rising housing costs that are leaving many residents increasingly desperate to find a place they can afford to live.
The result: a double heat and housing crisis whose sweltering toll is falling hardest on people who have little choice but to suffer the sun and on those who can’t afford the housing boom powering the economy.
Construction workers and landscapers whose sweat is fueling the growth do not have the option of working from an air-conditioned office. Instead, they say they worry about passing out or dying on the job as 115-degree days come earlier and grow ever more common.
As housing costs rise, more people are ending up on the baking streets or being forced to make agonizing choices: Pay the rent or pay the summer utility bills? Rent an apartment with reliable air conditioning, or live in a cheaper trailer home that broils under the sun?
“Extreme heat has made the problems we have all the more evident,” said Melissa Guardaro, an 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 homeless people represented half of last year’s record 323 heat-related deaths across the Phoenix area. The homeless population has grown during the pandemic, and activists are now worried that an expiring eviction moratorium will mean others will lose their homes at the height of summer.
Heat is already suspected in 20 deaths this year in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, with the deadliest months to come.
As the temperature spiked to a record 118 degrees last Thursday and climbed throughout the week, the people sweating, working and struggling through dawn-to-dark heat said they were longing for some relief from all of it.
7 a.m. 91 degrees
After starting work before dawn to escape some of the heat, Gutierrez and his colleagues on the construction crew climbed down from a roof in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Arizona, to catch their breath. They chugged a few bottles of electrolyte solution and sports drinks. Work is plentiful these days, but also brutal.
Home prices around Phoenix have risen by as much as 30% in the past year to a median of $390,000, and homes are selling faster than they did last year. Tech workers and others able to work remotely flocked to the Southwest during the pandemic, as did manufacturing jobs, creating a voracious appetite for housing.
“We have so many people who want a home in this community,” Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix said.
Gutierrez and his crew sometimes drive two hours to reach the new subdivisions creeping deeper into the desert. As the sun beat down, they put on gaiters and woven hats, but it barely helped.
One of the members of the crew had gotten dizzy and nearly tumbled from a roof the other afternoon. Not even a bush was left in the newly cleared desert where houses now bloomed, so they huddled for shade under the rafters of unfinished houses. The work paid $15 to $20 an hour.
“When it’s hard, you think about another job,” said Joaquin Robledo, 24, who like the others on the crew had immigrated from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. “But you can’t look for another job because you don’t have documents.”
9 a.m. 99 degrees
Julio Terrazas, 47, and a dozen day laborers stood in the parking lot of a Home Depot on the east side of Phoenix, yelling “Work? Work?” as pickup trucks rolled past them.
Their daily routine of planting trees, spreading gravel and renovating houses can become unbearable in the heat of summer, Terrazas and other laborers said. Some bosses give them shade, cold water, sandwiches and generous rest breaks. Others force the laborers to drink from backyard faucets and yell if the men sit down for more than five minutes, they said.
Noon 111 degrees
José Castro ducked into a shady pocket park in downtown Phoenix where he has been sleeping and pulled out a cherished sheaf of papers: an application for a subsidized apartment for his family. He said he had spent hours waiting in the sun at a Phoenix homeless-services center to get the application.
Castro, 30, said his family had lost their two-bedroom apartment after the pandemic struck and he and his wife lost hours at their warehouse and office-cleaning jobs, sending them into a financial tailspin.
Rents in Phoenix rose about 8% during the pandemic, the most of any major city, according to the real estate site Zillow. Castro said he could no longer afford the $1,100 that landlords in his old neighborhood were demanding.
“We have this perfect storm happening here of an affordable housing crisis, high eviction rates, massive energy bill burdens, COVID,” said Stacey Champion, who is part of a new movement of heat activists urging governments to do more to plan and protect people.
2:30 p.m. 115 degrees
Theresa Reyas, 49, parked her coolers on a downtown sidewalk, sat down and started selling. She had to make $85 that afternoon to pay for another day’s rent at the E Z Inn, where she has been staying since she left her husband.
Coke? Squirt? Water? she asked people walking by. The people working in air-conditioned office parks or relaxing beside their pools might not need $1 sodas, she reasoned. But in Phoenix’s hottest, least-shaded neighborhoods, they would sell.
“Every year it’s getting hotter and hotter,” she said. “You’ve got to go where the people are. You’ve got to go where it’s hot.”
7 p.m. 113 degrees
As heat waves get fiercer and heat-trapping cities push ever outward, desert nights do not cool down like they once did. And air conditioning bills are pricier than ever. So as the sun set over the city of Mesa, John Nyre, 70, turned off the window unit in his trailer home and went to watch reruns of an ’80s mystery series with his friend Gloria Ellis.
Both worry about their power bills and try to run their air conditioners as little and low as they can. Ellis sets hers to 77 degrees. Nyre’s trailer is baking at 95 degrees some nights when he comes home.
People living in trailer homes face a heightened risk of dying indoors, and Nyre said one of his neighbors was found dead two summers ago. The friends spend time in cool grocery stores but said a nearby senior center where they once went to keep cool remains largely closed because of the pandemic.
“It’s not easy,” Ellis said. “There’s not much you can do.”