United States

Persistent heat waves awaken tenants to their renters’ rights

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July 2022 was the contiguous US’s third-hottest July on record, and some tenants are losing their cool over the lack of air conditioning in their rentals.

Residents in Florida, Texas, Illinois, and other states claim that their repeated requests to install central air conditioning (A/C) or fix broken window units have been ignored for weeks. Some are relying on multiple fans in scorching conditions, while others are replacing units themselves out of desperation, but lower-income households can’t afford either option.

Nonfunctioning A/C increases the risk of heat-related death, especially in sweltering Southern states, where temperatures often linger in the triple-digits. Anyone can develop heat stroke or exhaustion, but infants, elderly, and people with medical conditions are particularly vulnerable.

Most states do not require landlords to provide any form of A/C. Therefore, tenants are resorting to a wider reading of individual states’ warranty of habitability, under the advice of attorneys. 

One frequent tactic is to request a rent reduction until A/C is installed or replaced. Another is to deduct the cost of repairing a defect themselves from the next month’s rent. Before acting in support or denial of these actions, property managers and landlords should study their potential liability under any applicable statutes in their state.

Attorney Stefanie Sparks of Atlanta Legal Aid in Georgia and Martin Wegbreit, Director of Litigation at Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in Virginia, support suing the landlord or property manager for hazardous conditions, which may include failing to protect against high temperatures.

But cities and states are beginning to take specific notice of the problem. Earlier this year, the city of Chicago amended its Cooling Ordinance to require eligible high-rise apartment buildings and hotels to maintain a common indoor “cooling space”. Permanent cooling and dehumidification equipment must be installed by May 2024.

Texas State Representative Sheryl Cole plans to file legislation in January 2023 in support of penalties for what she refers to as “violations of property code provisions.”

More and more of the responsibility of cooling could fall onto single- and multi-family property managers alike, even the ones who already attend their tenants’ needs in a timely manner. It only takes one tenant complaint to kickstart snowballing legal troubles, so it is in property managers’ best interests to consult an attorney before navigating emerging ordinances and protecting themselves and their landlords against any possible liabilities.

More renters’ rights headlines

Tampa Bay family learns a tough lesson in landlord/tenant Law when AC goes outABC Action News

Georgians without air conditioning endure dangerous heatWABE

Habitability and liability: how property managers can protect ownersForbes

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