The mercury in Karen Sauer's apartment unit crept toward triple digits Tuesday, along with the record-breaking temperature outside.
The low-income resident lives in government-backed housing in downtown Madison. Her unit doesn't have air conditioning, and Sauer's breathing condition gets worse in the heat, she said.
"If you're having trouble breathing, it's the scariest thing in the world," Sauer said. "If I want to walk to the kitchen to get something out of the microwave, I have to run back to my chair and I can't catch my breath. It's kind of scary."
State law doesn't require landlords to provide air conditioning, and some activists are asking community members for donations to keep low-income residents like Sauer cool.
Sauer's complex, the 335-unit Parkside Apartments, has air conditioning in fewer than half of its units, said Kate Pender, the community's parish nurse.
Pender leads the Triangle Community Ministry at the complex and runs a donation program to buy air conditioners for residents. Most can't afford one themselves, she said.
"I have to prioritize, and that is a really awful thing to do, because everybody needs something," she said, adding that she had a waiting list of more than 10 people. "So many of our people are very fragile health-wise, they're on many medications, and we're very concerned about them getting dehydrated and suffering heat-related illnesses."
The air conditioners cost about $450 apiece, because they need to fit boxes already installed on the outside walls of the aging apartment building.
The priority is placed on residents who simply can't leave their units because of medical conditions. When a resident leaves, the ministry keeps the air conditioner for another needy person, Pender said.
"It's unfortunate that someone has to be so grateful, that should be something that's so basic in our community," she said.
While landlords aren't required to have air conditioning, the state does require them to maintain units as advertised.
The record heat, including Tuesday's 100 degree temperature in Madison, has driven many frustrated people to call the Tenant Resource in Madison, said Brenda Konkel, the agency's executive director.
"It's very upsetting to people," she said. "There's a high level of frustration when it's this hot and your air conditioning doesn't work and you're paying for it."
Tenants should try to talk with their landlords and get them to fix the problem, Konkel said. If that doesn't work, they should call the building inspector in their towns or cities, she said.
Madison residents can contact the city's building inspector at 608-266-4551. The inspector can order landlords to fix the broken units, sometimes within a day if the conditions are severe, Konkel said.
"If there was an air conditioner provided with your apartment, then the landlord has to keep that in working condition unless you've agreed to something else up front," she said.
But some residents don't have that option because the government won't pay for units, Sauer said.
"I don't like to move around, I play Nintendo games. You can only play those so much," Sauer said. "When it's cool in my apartment, I can get off my oxygen for a little while and just to do a few things around the house."
The residents' needs are putting pressure on Pender's community ministry, which is asking for donations.
Those who would like to donate can call Pender directly at 692-0459. Or, people can mail a check to this address:
Triangle Community Ministry
755 Braxton Pl. #B109
Madison, WI 53715