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Legislation currently pending in front of the County Council would require landlords provide air conditioning systems capable of cooling off tenants during increasingly hot summers. But some supporters of the legislation want a stronger bill than others.
Bill 24-19 Landlord Tenant Relations – Obligations of the Landlord – Air Conditioning, introduced by Councilmember (CM) Tom Hucker (District 5), would require a landlord to provide and maintain air conditioning (AC) service for rental housing in the County from May 1 to September 30. Apartment AC systems must be in a condition to provide a certain temperature to specified rooms in a rental unit, similar to a law already on the books regarding heating rental units in the winter.
September Public Hearing
Five speakers appeared before the County Council on September 10, 2019 to testify in favor of the bill. However, support for the bill from each speaker varied.
Director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA), Aseem Nigam, who spoke on behalf of the Executive Office, testified in support. In addition, DHCA requested amendments to the bill language to more closely reflect existing laws pertaining to a landlord’s requirement to provide heating to tenants during winter.
Jose Murillo, Government and Strategic Relations Specialist of CASA de Maryland, emphasized the legislation’s positive effects on the quality of life for tenants. CASA previously assisted tenants in the Aspen Hill area who lived in units without functioning AC, which was having negative health effects on the children of residents.
Matt Losak of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance testified that the Council should entirely remove the time of year restrictions (May 1 – September 30, as introduced) and further decrease the temperature requirement to 75 degrees.
Silver Spring resident and Board member of the Charter House Residents’ Council Victoria Price testified to support the bill. Ms. Price described heat-related incidents at Charter House dating back ten years. Three Charter House tenants went to the hospital for heat exhaustion in 2009. Another tenant died because of hyperthermia exacerbating an existing heart condition in 2011 after his AC failed; his body left to decompose for weeks in his unit. In 2015, Charter Hill tenants had no option but to picket in front of the Charter House building when AC was not functional during a hot Labor Day weekend. Within the last two months, two residents, including the Charter House Residents’ Council Board Vice President, fainted and went to the hospital for several days after fainting while sitting in the overheated mezzanine level of Charter House. Most recently, two residents fainted as local news arrived at Charter House to tape a TV segment on the bill in question.
Nicola Whiteman of the Apartment and Office Building Association (AOBA) had the unenviable position of having to address the Council after the preceding strong testimony from community advocates and renters. While allegedly in favor of the bill, every one of AOBA’s proposed amendments would substantially weaken the intent of the bill. First, AOBA proposed shortening the time of year restrictions from May 1 – September 30 to May 15 – September 30. AOBA also requested special relaxed criteria for complexes using “two-pipe” heating and cooling systems. Finally, AOBA wanted to weaken the bill by allowing landlords to sidestep AC requirements by passing on the responsibility of providing AC to the tenant.
Issues taken up in September worksession
The Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee (PHED, comprising Chair Hans Riemer, Andrew Friedson, Will Jawando and with Tom Hucker sitting in), met on September 23 to discuss the details of the legislation.
Issues for the worksession included debating the required temperature for cooling, the time of year during which AC must be maintained, and different AC guidelines for buildings with different AC systems that require longer periods to transition between heating operations to cooling operations.
Will Jawando agreed with the Renters’ Alliance request to lower the temperature minimums, requiring landlords provide AC capable of cooling 75 degrees rather than the DHCA recommended 78 degrees and the originally proposed 80 degrees. Jawando was the lone councilmember in his support for lower standard temperatures on the PHED committee. Riemer did not agree with more strict cooling and Andrew Friedson appeared hesitant to even support the DHCA’s recommendation of lowering to 78 degrees. For the duration of the worksession, Councilmembers appeared to proceed under the assumption that DHCA’s amendment to lower the cooling temperature to 78 degrees was acceptable. The representatives made no definitive agreements on any of the discussions.
The only other significant issue taken up by the councilmembers in the September 23 worksession was which rooms of an apartment unit will the landlord be responsible to cool and how DHCA inspectors would measure those temperatures. There was considerable discussion and disagreement between the PHED committee on which rooms were considered reasonable to expect cooling and which were not.
Prior to the worksession, DHCA requested an amendment which changes the bill to reflect existing language in the Montgomery County Code requirements for providing heating to rental units. However, because heating apartments requires attention to different rooms (such as a water closet, where water pipes need heating in order not to freeze), the Committee got bogged down in the details of which rooms should require AC.
Nevertheless, the discussion offers an insight into the different levels of support on the PHED committee for a strong AC bill. Bill sponsor Tom Hucker and Will Jawando, as well as DHCA, gave strong support to the bill. They frequently voiced the intention of passing a bill that would “set a standard” for cooling apartments and ensuring AC repair. Hans Riemer was careful to acknowledge the need for the bill but was hesitant to support any measure that would not give the appearance of a “good faith effort” at establishing standards that landlords wouldn’t routinely violate. Andrew Friedson similarly did not want to set an overly “prescriptive” standard with the bill. While he claimed to concur with the need for the bill, he also replied to Tom Hucker’s stated intent to pass a bill that would be a tool to correct long-standing AC violations with, “good intentions don’t always make good policies.”
Friedson may be right, good intentions don’t always translate to good policy. But the intentions of the policymaker absolutely have a role to play in determining what standard they set for tenants’ AC and cooling needs. Both Riemer and Friedson, by all appearances, do not intend to pass a bill that will rock the status quo. Riemer was hesitant to include the kitchen as a room requiring AC under the proposed bill and doesn’t want to be perceived (presumably by landlords) as acting in “bad faith.”
Friedson wants to de-fang the bill even more, removing kitchens and bathrooms as rooms requiring AC from the bill and opposing setting the temperature to 78 degrees, much less 75 degrees. Riemer and Friedson want a weak standard in place, whereby tenants who may be uncomfortably hot in one critical section of their apartment will have to resort to not using part of their apartment.
Tom Hucker and Will Jawando, on the other hand, want a bill to encompass not only the kitchen and bathroom, but common areas of the apartment building. According to Hucker, a majority of apartments have AC systems but there is no language in the law that requires those systems to function properly. This bill would correct that oversight and provide tenants who know their rights with the ability to exert those rights.
So while Friedson’s clever quip may have a grain of truth, it obscures the real issues underlying the committee’s deliberations: does the government ensure higher quality of life for tenants or does it do as little as possible so as not to disturb business as usual? Readers might consider writing their representatives to give them their opinion on the choice facing the PHED committee.
The committee will continue to work on Bill 24-19 Landlord Tenant Relations – Obligations of the Landlord – Air Conditioning and Commonwealth will continue to report on the bill’s progress. Stay tuned for more.
–”Problem Tenant” a.k.a. Erik Wright