Climate Change, Rising Rental Rates Fuel Need for Air Conditioning Bill, Hucker Says

Climate Change, Rising Rental Rates Fuel Need for Air Conditioning Bill, Hucker Says

Proposed Legislation Still a Priority as Council Reconvenes

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Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker discusses his proposed air conditioning bill at a press conference on Tuesday.

Photo by Kate Masters

At a press conference on Tuesday, Councilman Tom Hucker shared some eye-catching statistics in support of his bill to require air conditioning in rental units. This was the hottest June in Montgomery County history, he said, and July was the hottest month, globally, on record.

The number of 90-plus degree days is rising steadily, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year, there were 28 deaths in Maryland linked to extreme heat.

The information was meant to bolster a proposed bill to require Montgomery County landlords to supply tenants with air conditioning. Hucker introduced the legislation in July and brought it back to the agenda on Tuesday when the Montgomery County Council reconvened after a monthlong break.

The bill, a revision of the Montgomery County housing code, would require all landlords to supply and maintain air conditioning between May 1 and Sept. 30 for an inside temperature of 80 degrees or lower.

County code currently only requires landlords to provide heat and hot water and maintain basic amenities, with a “vague” reference to maintaining air conditioning if it’s already present in the building, said Matt Losak, the executive director of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance.

“We’re seeing a significant and growing number of complaints that have to do with a lack of air conditioning,” he continued. “And this is a step forward. This is a simple thing that could be fixed.”

The bill gained a significant supporter on Tuesday when the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington offered a conditional endorsement.

The nonprofit advocates for the property management industry in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., including more than 60,000 apartment units in Montgomery County, said Nicola Whiteman, the senior vice president of government affairs.

The organization supports the bill as part of its commitment to providing tenants with comfortable living conditions, she added. But at a public hearing for the bill, she also proposed changes that would provide landlords with greater flexibility.

One of the amendments would add language to allow for time to make necessary repairs.

“As the bill stands now, if you take an [air conditioning] system down for repairs, you’re technically noncompliant,” Whiteman said. The association also supported pushing the start date for required air conditioning from May 1 to May 15, and to June 1 for older systems that take more time to transition.

“That’s consistent with the legislation in D.C. and Virginia,” Whiteman said. “Our concern is that if you turn the air conditioning on too early, that could also make tenants uncomfortable.”

Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia legislate air conditioning maintenance in cases where it’s already supplied in the building, she added. Some of those laws set start dates for turning on the systems, but Whiteman couldn’t find any other examples of a comprehensive requirement for supplying air conditioning at all rental properties.

“At least regionally, it looks like Montgomery County might be unique in this,” she said.

At his midday press conference and the council’s public hearing, Hucker emphasized the importance of the bill in a landscape of rising global temperatures and an increasing number of renters.

Close to 40 percent of residents in Montgomery County now live in rental properties, Losak said, and excessive heat is linked to health risks including heart attacks, stroke, and exacerbated respiratory illness.

Several residents from The Charter House, an affordable senior living complex in Silver Spring, testified in support of the bill. One was Victoria Price, a 14-year tenant and member of the building’s residents council.

The complex was constructed in 1964, she said, and experienced frequent problems with its air conditioning system. In 2011, a tenant died from hyperthermia and it was later determined that the air conditioning in his room was not operational, she said. That testimony was repeated by three other Charter House residents, including Ella Cassidy and Mada Preston, who said they were hospitalized due to excessive heat in the building.

“I was sitting in the mezzanine and before I knew it, I was out like a light,” Preston said. Cassidy also said she fainted on the mezzanine, and both worried that the heat would exacerbate their diabetes.

But Celia Slater, communications director for AHC Inc. — the property management company in charge of the building — objected to Charter House being used as a case study for the proposed legislation. “We don’t want to be the poster child for something that doesn’t apply to our building,” she said.

AHC took over the property in 2014, three years after the reported death of a tenant. Slater acknowledged that the building’s air conditioning wasn’t fully operational earlier this summer when Cassidy and Preston fainted on the mezzanine — the result of a broken chiller.

But after residents reported the issue, the company purchased more than 30 portable air conditioning units and distributed them to residents, she said. Building manager Michael Brown stayed until 1 or 2 a.m. to ensure residents were comfortable. There were also signs in common areas, including the mezzanine, that the air conditioning wasn’t working.

“We worked really hard to make sure residents were secure,” Slater said. “I think the bill is a good idea — we always want tenants to be comfortable — but I don’t think it applies to us.”

It does apply to thousands of vulnerable renters across Montgomery County, Hucker said at the press conference. The county doesn’t currently track how many apartment buildings provide air conditioning, but it’s not uncommon for landlords to ignore issues with faulty or broken systems.

Those renters are most vulnerable to current environmental changes, he added.

“Look at the deaths we saw in Japan and France this summer,” Hucker said, referring to two record-breaking heat waves that attracted international attention in July. “This is what happened in other areas, and this is what will happen in Montgomery County if we don’t take steps to protect people from climate change.”

A workshop on the bill is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 23.

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