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Kansas City has no laws protecting renters from the deadliest weather phenomenon: heat

A bus stands idle outside an apartment building, in a parking lot.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City Area Transportation Authority bus acting as a cooling center is parked outside the Westport House Apartments on June 17, 2024 to provide relief to residents.

As Kansas City experiences hotter summers, and after senior tenants in a Midtown apartment building went without air conditioning last month, some local officials want to pass more protections for renters during extreme heat.

In the midst of the first intense heat wave of the summer, senior tenants at Westport House Apartments in Midtown Kansas City were left without air conditioning for days.

The 90-degree temperatures created unbearable conditions for tenants throughout the 12-story building, including Judith Augustine.

“Everybody who lives here is over 65,” said Augustine, 78. “We don't do as well in the heat as we would if we were much younger. We have lots of chronic disabilities and so forth here.”

Residents at Westport House, which is partially subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, waited nearly five days for repairs to the building’s air conditioning. The landlord provided box fans, and the city parked a bus out front to act as a cooling center and dispatched emergency medical personnel to check on residents.

Kansas City doesn’t have laws that explicitly require landlords to provide cooling or air conditioning to tenants in extreme heat, nor does it have a formal response plan in place when emergencies like this occur.

Ruthy Gourevitch is the housing policy manager at the Climate and Community Project, a progressive think tank focused on climate policy. She said few municipalities have laws on the books to protect renters from extreme heat.

“It's becoming increasingly urgent for cities and states and (the) federal government to be tackling these issues, because climate change is making our summers even hotter,” Gourevitch said. “This is putting people at risk of heat stroke, fainting, cognitive issues — right in their own homes.”

As summers get hotter, the cost of air conditioners and higher utility bills fall heavily on low-income renters. According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, renter households in Kansas City spend 3% of their gross household income on energy costs, also called their energy burden.

Renters making less than 60% of the area median income, $61,860 for a four-person household, spend 8% of their income on energy. In Kansas City, Black and low-income renters spend 51% of their annual income on gas and electricity.

“There needs to be an awakening of understanding extreme heat as a disaster in itself,” Gourevitch said. “You can't only intervene in one-off measures like cooling buses or cooling centers, but you need to really tackle the issue at its core.”

What laws exist now

Kansas City’s Healthy Homes Rental Inspection Program, which covers health and safety regulations for rental housing, requires landlords to provide heating in every room to at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Healthy Homes does not explicitly require landlords to provide cooling.

When the Westport House tenants lost air conditioning, the city found the landlord in violation of a Healthy Homes requirement that requires landlords to ensure all appliances in a rental unit work. The landlord must then correct the violation.

Under Healthy Homes, the city can revoke or suspend a rental permit, issue a citation or fine, or order a portion of the building to be vacated.

“But how does it actually immediately improve the living conditions for the tenants who live there?” said 6th District Council Member Johnathan Duncan. “What are the additional remedies that the city, HUD and the county have to hold the landlords accountable? I think that is yet to be solved.”

Some cities have laws in place protecting renters against extreme heat. In Chicago, lawmakers in 2022 passed legislation requiring certain residential buildings to provide at least one indoor “cooling space” when the temperature is above 80 degrees.

Landlords in Dallas must provide air conditioning that keeps the unit 15 degrees cooler than the outdoor temperature and no higher than 85 degrees. In Tempe, Arizona, landlords must provide some form of cooling that the tenant can control.

Officials hoping for change

4th District-at-Large council member Crispin Rea will propose tweaks to city code this month to require landlords to immediately notify the health department of a systemwide HVAC outage in a multi-unit apartment building that lasts more than 12 hours, and provide a pathway to do so.

Another resolution from Rea directs City Manager Brian Platt to develop an emergency response plan for life-threatening situations in apartment buildings.

Rea said he liked how the city responded to Westport House last month.

“What I did not like was the informal way that we found out,” he said. “It kind of just happened through the grapevine.”

City officials found out about the broken AC from political canvassers who were inside the building and spoke with residents.

“The onus should be on the landlord to report that, ‘Hey, we've identified that units within our building don't have air conditioning or the whole building as a systemwide failure,’” Duncan said. “We shouldn’t be finding out that way.”

Rea will also introduce a resolution directing City manager Platt to develop a policy to protect city workers from heat, as they often pick up trash and do roadwork in triple-digit heat.

“I think we are in uncharted territory here,” Rea said. “It requires us to be responsive in the ways that we can so that we can make sure folks are safe.”

Kansas City’s Neighborhood, Planning and Development Committee will hear the legislation on Tuesday, July 16, at 1:30 P.M.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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