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Commentary: Renters deserve air conditioning

Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

By Carlos Childs

The writer is a Charles County resident and progressive activist.

Last week an excessive heat warning and heat advisory were issued for the Northeast region of the country, including Maryland. Meteorologists expected temperatures to reach the upper 90s and feel like the low 100s. The Maryland Department of Preparedness and Response has stated “extreme heat can lead to serious health issues. Exposure to heat may lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death” — meaning we should not only treat rising temperatures as an environmental concern, but also as a threat to public health.

Given the health issues that can arise from residents not having access to proper air conditioning, the Charles County government opened and promoted the use of cooling centers around the county. The lack of proper air conditioning has been known to disproportionately affect low-income renters. When discussing how renters are more likely to not have air conditioning, Emma Ockerman, a personal finance reporter, said in MarketWatch, “The reality that many households without air conditioning are made up of low-income renters or people of color has caused some to see air-conditioning access as both a public-health and racial-equity issue.”

In June of 2022, ABC Channel 7 reported that residents of Headen House and Huntington Apartments in St. Charles were sweltering in the summer’s heat due to not having working air conditioning. Considering that Charles County is majority Black with pockets of low-income renters, and we have seen in the past a disregard from property management companies about repairing air conditioning in a timely manner, our commissioners need to take a stand against this type of inequality by mandating air conditioning, in proper and working order, be provided in all rental units.

There are strategic ways to put legislation into effect that is equitable for renters and property owners:

  • Require all multi-family residential rental property owners and single-family residential rental property owners to provide and maintain air conditioning service for rental housing units located in the county.
  • Each property owner of multi-family and single-family rental housing where cooling is under the control of the tenant, must provide an air conditioning system capable of maintaining a temperature of no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit in each habitable space, including bathrooms, toilet rooms, and hallways at a minimum height of 5 feet above floor level.
  • Each property owner of multi-family and single-family rental housing where cooling is not under the control of the tenant must maintain a temperature of no more than 75 degrees Fahrenheit in each habitable space, including bathrooms, toilet rooms, and hallways at a minimum height of 5 feet above floor level.
  • Property owners shall be given 12 months following the passage of legislation to make any maintenance upgrade to be in compliance with the legislation.

Currently the only rule around property owners providing and maintaining air conditioning is that if air conditioning is in the lease it must be in working order. Unfortunately, since there is no regulation on what working order means, a renter could have air conditioning that only cools rooms to 80 degrees and the property owner can say it is working properly.The critics who have chosen to side with the corporations that own a majority of the county’s multi-family rental units and the ones turning townhomes into rental properties, instead of standing with working-class renters, have stated that this is an overreach into private property.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, especially when according to The People’s Law Library of Maryland, “Maryland requires landlords to provide access to heat, light, electricity, hot/cold running water, and adequate sewage disposal.” Another talking point that has come from bad-faith actors is that since they did not grow up with air conditioning and since they survived, others will, similar to what one county commissioner who represents Waldorf said during the hearing for these legislative proposals.

This is a narrow-minded way to look at society and the opposite of how the county government has acted in the past. Change is possible: At one point in history Charles County residents had zero access to public transit, however in December of 2021 the county government conducted a pilot program making VanGo fare free, which has continued to this day.

Whether you are an elected official or resident, no matter your age, we should be working toward ensuring current and future generations have a higher standard of living, which includes organizing and passing legislation that affirms air conditioning is a human right.


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Commentary: Renters deserve air conditioning