States Look to Help Tenants Pay for Air Conditioning as Climate Warms

By: - September 19, 2022 12:00 am

Katherine Morgan drinks water in front of a box fan while trying to stay cool in her downtown Portland, Ore., apartment without air conditioning in 2021. About 100 people died statewide in that heat in the summer of 2021, prompting the state to pass a law permitting air conditioners in apartments and paying for the units for low-income dwellers. Nathan Howard/The Associated Press

As an intense heat wave scorched Oregon in the summer of 2021, state Sen. Kayse Jama, a Democrat from Portland, knew people were literally dying from the heat. About 100 Oregonians passed away from heat-related causes, mostly low-income, older apartment-dwellers. About a quarter of the people who died lived in his district.

That harsh statistic drove Jama to sponsor and successfully shepherd a bill to increase access to air conditioning in a part of the country where cooling had been less necessary before climate change began taking hold.

“We have a responsibility to protect Oregonians from climate change and protect the most vulnerable in our community,” he said in an interview. “Climate change is not going anywhere; the heat waves are coming back year after year.”

Some states where air conditioning used to be a luxury that was needed only a few days a year are now looking at ways to help people stay cool in the increasingly hot summers.

Oregon’s new law requires landlords to allow tenants to install portable air conditioners — either window units or free-standing models, depending on the apartment configuration — in multifamily dwellings. The state also provides money to pay for portable AC units for residents who can’t afford them.

Other states are modifying their participation in the federal/state Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, initially designed to help with heating costs, to cover AC. Some states are using federal pandemic funds to get cooling units in place.

Brandon Kitagawa, a senior policy associate at Regional Asthma Management and Prevention, a California nonprofit group that tracks public health issues, said in an email that states “have not done much” to address AC in apartments. Most standards are at the local level, and only a few include required air conditioning, he said.

For example, he said, Dallas, Texas, requires landlords to “provide, and maintain, in operating condition, refrigerated air equipment capable of maintaining a room temperature of at least 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature, but in no event higher than 85 [degrees] Fahrenheit in each habitable room….” And Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., requires landlords to supply and maintain air conditioning service either through a central system or individual AC units.

But some landlords in Oregon have threatened to evict tenants for violating aesthetic or other rules when they installed AC units. Tenants have sought media attention to publicize their cause, and state and local officials are assessing whether the new air conditioning rules are too broad and may need modifications. And bills in California and Florida that would have gone further and mandated cooling requirements for apartments failed this session.

The new Oregon law took effect in March. While landlords were supposed to permit installation of portable units, sometimes those units blocked certain window exits, running afoul of egress laws designed to provide a means of emergency escape from an apartment if the main entrance is blocked.

And some landlords refused to allow the window air conditioners to protrude from windows or walls due to aesthetic concerns, but those instances were more easily addressed, advocates said.

Oregon state Rep. Pam Marsh, the Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House, said there is some “smoothing” of the implementation that still needs to be addressed.

“The landlords looked at some places where people had put in air conditioners and realized they were blocking egress from the place other than the door,” she said in an interview.

“Some issues were resolved when people got better … air conditioners [that didn’t block windows],” she said. Under the bill, she said, when the state is in the middle of a heat wave, exit rules and other safety requirements can be deferred for a few days. “We don’t want people taking air conditioners out when it’s 110 degrees.”

Solutions may include swapping out units that block windows with free-standing ones, she said, and working with landlords to increase understanding of what the law requires.

Marsh said there might need to be some modifications in the legislation or in implementation, to ease the egress issue, but most problems have been worked out. Supply chain delays also are easing, she said.

The landlord association Multifamily NW worked with the legislature to craft the bill and in the end supported it, said Marcel Gesmundo, a Portland attorney who worked with the group. The state set aside million for low-income residents to buy the units.

Gesmundo said swift passage of the new law was helped by the fact that the legislature brought landlords into the discussions. For example, he said, a provision in the bill says if a power system would be overloaded by multiple AC units, the landlord can restrict their use, by staggering operation or prioritizing disabled tenants.

“The law was crafted to meet the cooling needs of tenants in a world that’s getting hotter,” he said. He also noted that the law says any new buildings must have some kind of air conditioning. He said the new law “seems to be working pretty well.” 

Few Mandates

But Oregon and most states do not require landlords to provide air conditioning, and bills to mandate it have hit stumbling blocks.

Lawmakers introduced three bills in Florida this year that would have required apartment owners to provide air conditioning, and all of them failed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida state Rep. Michael Grieco, the Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, told the Florida Politics news outlet it would be “interesting” to see whether landlords opposed the measure. But the bills never had a hearing this session.

A bill considered by the California legislature this session would have set “safe maximum indoor air temperature” standards for apartment units. But it was stalled by opposition from the California Apartments Association, the Sacramento Bee reported, and instead the state must form policy recommendations by 2025.

“In a warming world, air conditioning is not a luxury,” said Sam Whillans, a fellow at the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council who has written about the issue. “It is a basic human need.”

In frequent heat waves, he said, human bodies need to stay within a certain temperature range to survive. But providing AC also often strains the electrical grid and poses a dilemma for energy-conscious groups like his, he acknowledged.

“Clearly, we need to make sure we are providing that in a smart way, so we are not overstraining the grid,” he said. “If you overstrain the grid and everyone’s power goes out, you have a real problem.”

Earlier this month, California state officials urged state residents to voluntarily turn up their thermostats to conserve energy during a heat wave. Residents did, and utilities said the precautions avoided blackouts in some areas. Some utilities also are asking residents to sign up for automatic thermostat settings that will go into effect when utility systems are under strain.

LIHEAP Changes

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, is a federal/state program that was designed to bring heat to residents with lower incomes in cold winter months. However, states increasingly are adapting it to include cooling, according to Marisa Larson, a manager at LIHEAP Clearinghouse, an agency within the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that keeps track of trends in how states apply, use and supplement the federal funding.

“From what I’ve noticed there has been a shift to cooling,” she said in an interview. “Especially now, there’s more cooling.”

The federal Office of Community Services, another division of HHS, sent an advisory in August noting that “the threat of extreme weather is disproportionately felt by communities of color, lower-income households, and vulnerable populations as they are more likely to live in ‘urban heat islands’ and are often unable to afford adequate air conditioning.”

The agency also has produced updated guidance on how states can adapt LIHEAP for cooling.

Washington state is one that has modified its LIHEAP program to summer conditions, including the regional heat domes that have affected Western states.

Washington State LIHEAP Program Director Brian Sarensen said his state had 120 heat-related deaths in the summer of 2021, and air conditioning is “just not a right in our state.”

In response, Sarensen said, the state has rolled out a free air conditioner program under LIHEAP for residents with low incomes. He said that so far, 4,000 air conditioners have been distributed. The state is using federal pandemic program funds to buy the units.

“The units belong to the renters,” he said. “Because they are a transient population, we wanted them to belong to them. There are no modifications to landlords’ buildings.” 

Heat is a new issue that requires attention, he said.

“We don’t want anybody to pass away because of something we can fix; that’s just not right.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.