What are Oregon tenants' rights during excessive heat?
As the Portland area braces for another heat wave, residents without air conditioning or other effective cooling methods in their homes could be in danger.
At least 96 people in Oregon died during late June's heat wave, when temperatures topped out at 116 degrees, according to data the Oregon Medical Examiner's Office released to OPB.
The report found that most of the people who died were older, lived alone and had no working air conditioner.
Air conditioning units aren't commonplace in the Pacific Northwest due to its historically mild climate. It's not required by state law for landlords to provide air conditioning for their tenants, either. ORS 90.320, which lays out what makes a property "habitable," provides a laundry list of requirements landlords must have in their properties, including waterproofing, plumbing facilities, adequate heating and more.
While landlords who do provide AC must keep them in working condition, landlords who don't provide AC aren't required to keep a dwelling "cool."
"I don't think there's a lot of options for tenants," said local tenant attorney Kevin Mehrens.
States like Arizona and Nevada, where extreme summers are expected, have clear language written into their tenant laws on air conditioning. Oregon's laws, meanwhile, were written decades ago. Climate change means Oregon's summers are hotter today than they were just 10 or 20 years ago, and the Pacific Northwest is more prone to heat waves that were unheard of in the 20th century.
"As far as what the law currently is, I don't really see that a tenant has a ton of recourse," Mehrens said. As he sees it, he added, "The best argument for a tenant is ventilation. So, if you're living in a house that only has two little windows, you could argue that a landlord should address that."
Troy Pickard, another local tenant attorney, said he believes an argument can be made that the heat inside a dwelling would make it uninhabitable, even though that example is not listed in the statute.
"Even though 'coolness' isn't specifically called out in that list, if the tenant found that the home simply could not be cooled below 90 degrees, perhaps that tenant would have a claim that the home was (not) inhabitable, even though temperature is not specifically addressed by the law," he said.
Pickard said this still wouldn't put the landlord on the hook to provide an air conditioner, but the tenant could theoretically be reimbursed for other cooling methods like blackout curtains.
"The tenant probably would have a legal basis to ask their landlord to reimburse them for the cost of cooling methods, if the tenant could win the argument that the landlord had failed to maintain the home in a habitable condition," he said. Same goes for alternative accommodations. But again, the tenant's right to reimbursement would hinge on whether the tenant could prove a violation of ORS 90.320 in the first place."
If a tenant wants to take matters into their own hands and install their own AC unit at their own expense, Mehrens advises they check their lease and ask first.
Some lease agreements prohibit things like window AC units, but Mehrens believes a landlord can't outright prohibit installation without reasonable accommodation.
"I think that reasonableness is what comes into play when you're talking about a tenant who says, 'I wanted to install an air conditioning unit, like a window unit.' As you make the argument, it would be unreasonable for the landlord to say, 'No, not allowed,'" Mehrens explained. "I think it'd be very reasonable for the landlord to say, 'OK, we can do it, but we have to use my guys to do it because I want to make sure it's properly installed.'"
This summer's excessive heat is unprecedented, but climatologists told KOIN 6 News that there is a good chance that high summer temperatures will likely return next summer.
"If we don't do anything about climate change, 2021 will be one of Portland's coolest summers," climatologist Kathie Dello said.
There have already been murmurs about updating state law to reflect the current conditions. state Sen. Deb. Patterson, D-Salem, told KATU in July that compelling landlords to provide AC should at least be an option.
"I can't see how it wouldn't be. It's just got to be. People have died. We can't let a policy be in place that doesn't allow people to protect themselves," she said.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.