As an intense heat wave scorched Oregon in the summer of 2021, state Sen. Kayse Jama, a Democrat from Portland, knew people were literally dying from the heat. About 100 Oregonians passed away from heat-related causes, mostly low-income, older apartment-dwellers. About a quarter of the people who died lived in his district.
That harsh statistic drove Jama to sponsor and successfully shepherd a bill to increase access to air conditioning in a part of the country where cooling had been less necessary before climate change began taking hold.
“We have a responsibility to protect Oregonians from climate change and protect the most vulnerable in our community,” he said in an interview. “Climate change is not going anywhere; the heat waves are coming back year after year.”
Some states where air conditioning used to be a luxury that was needed only a few days a year are now looking at ways to help people stay cool in the increasingly hot summers.
Oregon’s new law requires landlords to allow tenants to install portable air conditioners — either window units or free-standing models, depending on the apartment configuration — in multifamily dwellings. The state also provides money to pay for portable AC units for residents who can’t afford them.
Other states are modifying their participation in the federal/state Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, initially designed to help with heating costs, to cover air conditioning. Some states are using federal pandemic funds to get cooling units in place.
Brandon Kitagawa, a senior policy associate at Regional Asthma Management and Prevention, a California nonprofit group that tracks public health issues, said in an email that states “have not done much” to address AC in apartments. Most standards are at the local level, and only a few include required air conditioning, he said.
For example, he said, Dallas, Texas, requires landlords to “provide, and maintain, in operating condition, refrigerated air equipment capable of maintaining a room temperature of at least 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature, but in no event higher than 85 [degrees] Fahrenheit in each habitable room….” And Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., requires landlords to supply and maintain air conditioning service either through a central system or individual air-conditioning units.
But some landlords in Oregon have threatened to evict tenants for violating aesthetic or other rules when they installed air-conditioning units. Tenants have sought media attention to publicize their cause, and state and local officials are assessing whether the new air-conditioning rules are too broad and may need modifications.
Bills in California and Florida that would have gone further and mandated cooling requirements for apartments failed this session.
The new Oregon law took effect in March. While landlords were supposed to permit installation of portable units, sometimes those units blocked certain window exits, running afoul of egress laws designed to provide a means of emergency escape from an apartment if the main entrance is blocked.
And some landlords refused to allow the window air conditioners to protrude from windows or walls due to aesthetic concerns, but those instances were more easily addressed, advocates said.