WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – The temperatures may have cooled from Central Texas’ stifling hot summer, but some people are still pretty heated up about spending some of those triple-digit days without air conditioning.
Jessica Leal is one of them. For about two weeks last month, she said she either had no air conditioning or just a window unit in one room provided by her apartment management company. That’s despite, she said, notifying management several times that she did not have a proper working AC.
“I’ve had to keep my cool when I’ve called,” she said, even though she, her wife and daughter were sweating it out in their southwest Austin home. “Anywhere from 85 to 90 degrees in our apartment.”
Leal said the heat took a toll on her 7-year-old daughter, Mackenzie.
“One night she started complaining that she couldn’t breathe and that she was feeling sick, and she wanted to throw up,” Leal said.
Leal said Mackenzie cooled down and recovered. The mother said the complex replaced their AC unit in mid-September. KXAN Investigates reached out to management at the apartment complex who told KXAN Investigator Mike Rush they had no comment.
Renters’ suffering without AC is an issue KXAN Investigates has been following for more than a year.
Last year, Thelma Reyes in east Austin told KXAN she spent five days without air.
“It was hotter in here than it was outside,” Reyes said at the time.
KXAN Investigates also interviewed Daniel Bowers in Pflugerville this summer.
“I’m estimating I’ve lost 15 pounds,” Bowers told Rush at the time.
He said he suffered physically and mentally without air in his rental home for more than 50 days.
Bowers’ story got the attention of Williamson County Justice of the Peace K.T. Musselman.
“I saw your story online,” the judge said.
Texas law does not require landlords to provide air conditioning to tenants, but, under state law, tenants do have a right to demand the landlord repair any condition that quote “materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant”.
“After seeing your story, I thought, you know, I think that somebody could potentially make an argument based upon your reporting that their health and safety have been affected by not being provided with continuous air conditioning or cooling,” Musselman said.
‘Repair and remedy’ lawsuit
Musselman sent a link to KXAN’s story about Bowers to the Texas Justice Court Training Center, a state agency that provides legal guidance to justices of the peace. He said he asked the agency if tenants could file what’s called a “repair and remedy” lawsuit if they believe their health and safety were impacted because a landlord failed to repair AC.
“They did the research and found that there’s been no appellate courts that have ruled on this matter and as a result their advice was that it is up to the individual justice of the peace to interpret that section of the code,” Musselman said.
Musselman pointed out this doesn’t mean he, or any other justice of the peace would automatically rule in favor of the renter because each case is different, but he said, it does give renters an option they may not know they have.
“It means that there is potentially recourse in your local justice of the peace court, which is a judge who’s elected from your neighborhood, he’s in the same heat that you have to live in and is the judge who gets to determine whether or not something meets that code,” he said.
“The judge can order a certain issue to be repaired by a certain time date as well. As well as offer an award of one month’s rent plus $500,” Musselman said.
The law also allows the judge to grant a maximum of $20,000 in damages.
Musselman said in order to file a “repair and remedy’ case against your landlord, you do have to first give proper legal notice to the landlord asking for a repair and give them a reasonable amount of time to make the repair, which the law defines as seven days. You also have to be current on your rent.
The judge said in most cases you don’t need a lawyer to bring a ‘repair and remedy’ case before a justice of the peace. To learn more about the process, he said contact your justice of the peace.
Legislation in Texas
Earlier this year, KXAN Investigates reported on a state lawmaker’s efforts to make fixing apartment AC issues a priority.
State Representative Sheryl Cole filed a bill in the Texas Legislature that would have required apartment complexes statewide to provide air conditioning that maintains a temperature of 10 degrees below the recorded temperature outside the apartment or 85 degrees, whichever is lower.
The bill would have also required landlords or management to repair or replace faulty air conditioning within five days or provide the renter with an air conditioning unit or another place to stay until repairs are made.
The bill did not pass through the legislature, but Cole said, if re-elected, she will try again in the next legislative session in 2025.
In August, Austin City Council approved an item to start the process of amending the City of Austin Land Development Code (LDC) to require residential property owners to provide air conditioning.
The resolution asks the city manager to determine the best implementation of the change and bring forward a draft ordinance to council no later than August 2024.