Should landlords be required to provide air conditioning?

Sheila Armstrong stands in the living room of her 13th floor apartment at the Harrison Plaza buidling at 1050 North 10th Street where she installed an A/C unit to deal with the summer heat. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Sheila Armstrong stands in the living room of her 13th floor apartment at the Harrison Plaza buidling at 1050 North 10th Street where she installed an A/C unit to deal with the summer heat. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

As temperatures soar to red-alert levels and Philadelphia officials invite residents to cool off in air-conditioned city buildings, Maryland lawmakers want to mandate landlords provide AC at home.

The bill under consideration in Montgomery County, Maryland would require that all rental properties include air conditioning units maintained by the landlord during the summer months. The suburban county outside Washington D.C. as well as many other jurisdictions, require landlords provide heating, but cooling hasn’t ever been addressed.

Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker, who introduced the bill earlier this week, said policies need to “catch up with climate change,” which is driving up temperatures globally.

“Access to AC is not really a comfort issue,” he told the Washington Post on Tuesday. “It’s a life-or-death issue in weather like this.”

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Philadelphia lawmakers haven’t considered mandating air conditioning. Like Montgomery County and many other jurisdictions, the city requires  landlords provide heating in the cold months.

Reached on a 95-degree Philly day, a representative for landlords said he would support a regulation update for the region’s increasingly steamy summers.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Harvey Spear, president of HAPCO, the city’s largest landlord association. “I think they should require air conditioning. For children,

and adults too, someone could really get sick if there’s no air conditioning.”

With such concerns in mind, the New York City Housing Authority is rolling out a pilot program to provide free AC to a small number of tenants.

The program, a first for NYCHA, was inspired by a realization that heat has killed a large number of New Yorkers — and the number could grow into the thousands as heat waves become more common.

“The city has made it very clear that providing air conditioning in case of high heat events is very important,” Bomee Jung, the vice president for energy and sustainability at the housing authority told WNYC.”Very quickly, the question that NYCHA asked itself about being a landlord is, ‘How do we provide cooling if it’s necessary?'”

It’s a question the Philadelphia Housing Authority has begun to consider as it too recognizes the growing threat of heat in a housing stock that overwhelmingly lacks AC.

Over half of the city’s public housing units don’t include central air, largely because they were built, like the New York developments, before air conditioning was common.

Philadelphia Housing Authority tenants have the option to purchase their own units if their buildings don’t have them, and the housing authority will install them upon request. In high rises, tenants are required to have authority staff install the units.  But the window units cost up to a few hundred dollars, plus maintenance.

Sheila Armstrong, an activist and longtime resident of public housing in Philadelphia, said the current system isn’t working. She paid for her own window unit but not all neighbors can afford the cost. Seniors on a fixed income are especially vulnerable, she said.

“It’s low-income families in here and not everyone can afford air conditioning,” said Armstrong, who recently waged an unsuccessful campaign to replace City Council President Darrell Clarke as the legislator for much of North Philadelphia. “[Seniors] are on a fixed income and they can’t afford whatever their needs are.”

Kirk Dorn, a spokesman for the housing authority, said the agency knows about the problem and provides cool spaces in all of its senior facilities.

“In times of heat waves, PHA works extra hours to address any air conditioning issues with special attention to elderly residents or when someone in the household is sick,” Dorn wrote in an email. “At all senior buildings, PHA has air conditioned community centers for residents’ use.”

He also noted that New York City has more resources to provide AC than Philadelphia.

“As by far the nation’s largest housing authority, NYCHA is in a unique position,” Dorn said.

Armstrong said the cooling centers now offered by PHA are only part of a solution. When these spaces host Boys and Girls clubs, as the one at her development does, adults are not allowed in the center, she said. The kids-only sessions can run all day.

“Unfortunately, we had to tell some of our seniors and people who don’t have air conditioning in this heat wave, to go to the library, go to the shopping plaza,” said Armstrong. “Go visit your city councilmembers, government officials, and everyone who has air and just stay there for a while.”

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