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Montgomery approves first-in-region measure to require air conditioning for tenants

Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker was the lead sponsor of the air conditioning bill.
Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker was the lead sponsor of the air conditioning bill. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)
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In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, it will soon be mandatory for most landlords to provide air conditioning to tenants.

Lawmakers in Montgomery County voted unanimously Tuesday to require that property owners “supply and maintain” air conditioning service at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less during the summer months — a first-in-the-region mandate that experts say is rare across the country.

Detached single-family homes and certain historical properties would be exempt.

Tenant advocates welcomed the measure, which aides to County Executive Marc Elrich (D) say will be signed into law. But some property managers are less enthusiastic, criticizing officials for placing an additional burden on property owners.

Unlike heat and water, air conditioning is not considered by most housing departments to be an essential condition of habitability, said Jim Brooks, housing director at the National League of Cities. But in the warmest parts of the United States, there are some exceptions.

In Dallas, where temperatures can soar to 110 degrees over the summer, landlords are required to provide “refrigerated air,” defined as 85 degrees or lower, from April 1 to Nov. 1. In Phoenix, landlords must provide cooling systems that bring the temperature of all habitable rooms under 86 degrees.

Montgomery lawmakers argue that similar rules are necessary in their county of 1 million residents, given the reality of climate change. Washington posted its seventh-hottest summer in 2019, with an average daily temperature of 79.5 degrees. In Maryland, the state Department of Health recorded 21 heat-related deaths over the summer, including one in Montgomery and five in neighboring Prince George’s County.

“Air conditioning has become a life-or-death issue, not just a comfort issue,” said County Council Vice President Tom Hucker (D-District 5), who spearheaded the bill.

Montgomery County Housing Director Aseem Nigam said the department does not track households without air conditioning and is unsure how many of the county’s 300,000 tenants would be affected by the legislation.

Matt Losak, executive director of the Montgomery Renters Alliance, said he rarely hears from tenants without an air-conditioning unit in their apartments. It is more common for tenants to complain about a broken or malfunctioning cooling system, he said, or about landlords refusing to provide working air conditioning even though it is listed in the lease.

The bill requires property owners to maintain cooling systems “in a safe and good working condition.” Losak thinks that this clause, along with the heightened awareness of the issue as a result of the bill, will help to ensure that tenants gain access to cooling systems.

High temperatures over the summer are especially dangerous for the county’s growing number of senior citizens, who are often less able to seek cooler temperatures outside of their homes, Losak said. In the District, Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) has introduced a similar mandate for properties that house the elderly and disabled.

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, which represents nearly 12,000 real estate professionals, lobbied the Montgomery Council to exempt single-family homes from the bill, arguing that a blanket requirement would contradict the county’s goals of creating a more business-friendly environment and boosting affordable housing.

Danai Mattison, president of the organization, estimated that there are between 300 and 1,400 units in Montgomery County without air conditioning. Supplying a new cooling system to these units could cost property owners $500 to $2,000 per room, she wrote to the council in January.

On Tuesday, Hucker amended the bill to exclude detached single-family homes but not townhouses. GCAAR’s vice president for public policy Katalin Peter said the change struck “a good balance.”

Several lawmakers, including housing committee chair Hans Riemer (D-At Large), initially supported a clause that would allow individual tenants to opt out of the requirement, but that provision was also removed from the final bill on Tuesday.

“It shouldn’t be a choice,” Losak said. “We’re talking here about health and safety.”

The law would take effect 90 days after it is signed by Elrich.

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