PHOENIX — 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 Mr. Gutierrez, 22, who has been undocumented 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, Mr. Gutierrez and his colleagues on the construction crew climbed down from a roof in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Ariz., to catch their breath. They chugged a few bottles of electrolyte…