A/C Repairs: Costly for Landlords to Make, Health Hazards for Tenants if They’re Not

With the coming summer heat, life without a reliable air conditioner can be close to unbearable.
With the coming summer heat, life without a reliable air conditioner can be close to unbearable. Screenshot
Humble resident Mary Hines Williams often wakes up covered in a layer of sweat, reaching for the cold water that sits next to her on her bedside table. Ever since her former landlord was replaced by a new management company last year, Williams has struggled with several issues in her apartment including her air conditioner not working. It only blows out cold air occasionally.

“I can’t deal with this heat, I am a diabetic and I sit by the fan, trying to stay cool in front of it when I am laying down and that’s how I am living,” Williams said. “I should be a lot more comfortable than I am right now, especially when I am paying; I should be living better than this.”

This has become a growing issue in Texas as summer months have come earlier and warmer days stay later into the year. Many residents in apartments are wary of the temperatures increasing and how their air conditioners might keep up.

Or how they will pay for repairs if their systems give out during extensive heat waves.

Although the responsibility to repair typically falls on the landlord – unless otherwise indicated in a lease – some managers and owners are unwilling to pay for air conditioners to be fixed due to the high costs.

According to Home Guide, the average AC repair costs $150 to $650, depending on the issues with the machines and its warranty. For a larger or more complex AC the costs could range anywhere from $650 to $2,500.

If the landlord is unwilling to pay those fees for the repairs requested, tenants have to explore other alternatives which may entail using their own money if they want the process expedited or seeking legal action.

Residents are also afraid of impromptu utility shut offs, during which there would be no AC at all.

Two years ago, the 58-year-old Williams moved into Township Apartments, to be around family in the area. She said she sets her thermostat to 62 degrees to try to cool her apartment down, but the temperature still hovers at 75 degrees. To combat the heat, she arranges fans around the apartment, wears thin clothing and takes cool showers.

Williams has asked that her management company’s maintenance team do something about the other issues – gnats coming out of her carpet, water leaks in her bathroom light fixtures and holes in the wall full of mold – however, she had not contacted them about her air conditioner saying no repairs were made to anything else despite promises to put in and fulfill work orders.

The Houston Press contacted Township Apartments and a woman who referred to herself as the property manager said there were no pending work orders, except for ones put into the system on Wednesday. She told the Press not to contact her property again and ended the call.

Legal Aid Help

After complaining to her doctor, Williams was pointed in the direction of non-profit organization providing free legal representation, Lone Star Legal Aid to work with them to get all of these issues resolved, she said.

Williams isn’t the only Harris County resident experiencing issues with their air conditioning. Of Lone Star Legal Aid’s 450 tenant-landlord repair dispute cases handled in the last four years; 226 of them were filed by Harris County residents who had complaints about their air conditioning, according to Clarissa Ayala, communications director for Lone Star Legal Aid.

Eric Kwartler, managing attorney with the organization said Lone Star Legal Aid gets a majority of requests from residents that are a part of neighborhoods like Alief, Eldridge and West Oaks and Greenspoint.

Areas that already have high eviction rates, according to January Advisors – a data science consulting firm – are the neighborhoods that are dealing with this lack of access to consistent air conditioning and other utility issues.

Landlords may choose to ignore requests for repairs that are needed on broken air conditioning systems or restorations of illegally cut off utility services, refusing to turn them back on, Kwartler said.

In a state known for not having strong tenants’ rights, landlords are able to put tenants’ requests to the side because these residents do not have the legal standing to enforce the requirement for landlords to repair or restore their AC systems – unless they send a letter detailing their requests via certified mail to where they pay rent.

And the written letter detailing what they need repaired or restored is not considered valid by law unless the tenant is up to date on all their rent payments, Kwartler said.

“Even if you are sweltering in your home, pay that rent; because once you don’t pay rent or you are behind your right to enforce your rights to AC evaporate,” Kwartler said. “In Texas, if you don’t pay your rent, everything goes away.”

If a resident paid all their past rent payments, the letter request is meant to legally bind the landlord to respond and give the ability for the tenant – who because of the law has little ground to stand on – to protect their right to receive these services from their landlord, he said.

Although Williams is up to date on her rent, none of her work order requests have been fulfilled.

Because she was not advised by her management company to send in this written request, since starting to work with Lone Star Legal Aid, her case workers and attorneys are helping her draft a letter of request to her current landlord, before proceeding with legal action.

“For air conditioning and other utilities here in Texas, we have very limited processes that require a very specific compliance,” Kwartler said

What landlords need is the written and mailed request indicating whether the tenants are asking for a repair or restoration, but the residents may not know it is required.

Lone Star Legal Aid submits these written requests first, as landlords and building owners do have rights to have a “reasonable time frame” to respond and repair or restore whatever needs to be.

According to Kwartler, current law includes a clause that states the landlord only has to complete repairs if they affect the health and safety of the tenant. This can be used as a way for landlords to argue why they haven’t completed requests for certain repairs.

However, this argument tends to not work as not having a working air conditioner, especially in Texas summer, can affect the well-being of any resident, Kwartler said.

“Now any of us living in Houston for any amount of time knows that not having an air conditioner for however long will without a doubt affect the safety and health of anybody,” Kwartler said.

It is easier for tenants who are not requesting repairs but instead asking for their utilities be turned back on, as landlords are not legally allowed to turn off these services.

The only situations in which landlords are permitted to turn off utilities, like electricity is if they are doing repairs or during an emergency.

And when they do, they are required to provide the tenant with notice beforehand and tell them why these services are turned off and when they will be back on, Kwartler said.

A landlord is never allowed to shut off utilities because a tenant is behind on rent, especially if that tenant is paying for electricity and other utilities through their own providers, according to Texas statutes.

Kwartler said he advises residents who seek his legal assistance to get their utility services restored to acquire a writ of restoration – a form that would assist in requiring their landlord to restore utility services.

Usually, either the attorney on the tenant’s case will draft and file this or the tenant can do it themselves and take it into a notary. Although to get the information correct for the judge presiding over the case to review, it is suggested the attorney complete this form.

Typically, the “reasonable time frame” for these repair or restoration requests should not exceed seven days – but this varies, whether it needs to be shorter because the weather is too hot to go without air conditioning or it takes longer because they can’t get the labor or materials they need, Kwartler said.

If landlords don’t respond to these requests within this time frame – a resident can elect to take the landlord to small claims court, Kwartler said.

“As it gets hotter and hotter, the reasonableness of not having an air conditioner working is going to significantly change,” Kwartler said. “I have had clients who showed me pictures of their thermostat at 92 or 97 degrees because there is no air conditioning in their residence and that is not going to cut it.”

Effects of High Temperatures

Porfirio Villarreal, a public information officer at the Houston Health Department said these high temperatures are particularly harmful to tenants who are older or like Williams have pre-existing health conditions or are disabled, as these residents are at a higher risk of heat stroke, other heat related illnesses and death, he said.

“Because of my diabetes I just can’t be in the heat, my body cannot accept it – the heat does something to my body, and I keep getting sick,” Williams said.

After being hospitalized for diabetes complications, Williams got sick with pneumonia and is currently still recovering. Her grandson is staying with her at her apartment to help her out and make sure she is okay, she said.

“People need to take initiative and check on elderly and at-risk residents during warmer months, because they are going to take twice as long to recuperate after being exposed to high temperatures,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal said for those younger family members who may be checking in on their older relatives, it is important to look and see if they are sweating profusely, appear to be disoriented or if they feel weak, as these are all signs of heat exhaustion, he said.

If these residents do not have family members to contact or check-in on them while they may be struggling to get access to air conditioning, the city of Houston and Harris County has several resources available to these tenants who may need them.

The Houston Health Department’s multiservice centers are open to the public year-round and provide residents with places to stay all across the city – particularly during heat emergencies – to escape the warmth, Villarreal said.

Harris County’s Precinct2together program partners with Reliant Energy to create Reliant “Beat the Heat” centers that are open to the public to stay at if they need a place that is cool.

The health department also partners with Reliant Energy and the Harris County Area Agency on Aging to distribute around 200-300 portable air conditioning units a year to residents that are in need and apply for one.

Proposed Changes to Texas Tenant Law

Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Travis County) authored HB 2592 earlier this session, which would make it a law that all Texas landlords would have to provide air conditioning and that this requirement could not be waived.

Under this proposed legislation, the air conditioning system or unit that is provided must be able to keep the apartment either equal to or lower than 85 degrees or 10 degrees lower than the outside temperature. The bill is up for review by the House’s Committee on Business and Industry.

If passed, this would overturn current Texas law that does not require a landlord to provide an air conditioning system or unit to a tenant.

And although this is the law now, Kwartler said he has not handled a case of a Harris County resident who did not have some sort of air conditioner.

Kwartler said this is true especially for Houstonians, as cases of people who live in the city typically deal with broken or shut-off air conditioners – not the lack of having an air conditioner system or unit. This is because Houston passed its own ordinance requiring landlords to provide air conditioning unless there is open access in the apartment to doors and window screens, according to the Houston Apartment Association.

For the most part, when these cases do progress to court hearings if the tenant has done everything right in the process, judges tend to side with the tenant, Kwartler said.

“If landlord is still holding out, I can tell you that with something like AC, the judges are often very unsympathetic to a landlord who is keeping an apartment – especially if there are kids involved – at 90 degrees,” he said. “That is not something that judges like.”

Some tenants ask for assistance with breaking their lease during the legal process. This is one solution that Williams has considered, as her lease is up in September, she said.

Williams is concerned in the coming summer months, that she will be unable to find ways to cool down as the temperatures rise, “I am very nervous because if I am waking up now, sweating, imagine how hot I will get then and then the air is not working for me like it should,” she said.

With Lone Star Legal Aid’s assistance, she will be sending out the official request for repair of her air conditioner – among other problems – but until then she continues to play a waiting game.

“This is where I am at right now, my health is not good and going back and forth about all these issues is really frustrating. I have been depressed and just constantly ask myself, ‘What am I doing wrong?’” she said.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.