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Landlords may be required to keep your air conditioning running during a heat wave

If the landlord owns the air conditioning unit that once worked in the home, legal experts said they could be responsible for maintenance.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's sweltering in East Tennessee. Air conditioners across the area have been running full blast this week as the heat wave continues. Renters have mostly been depending on landlords to ensure they have cool air.

Angela Bartlett is the manager of aging services at the Knox County Community Action Committee. She said many are trying not to turn on the air conditioning, and she warned it could be dangerous to sit in the heat to save some money.

"Older people grew up not turning on the air conditioning," she said. "It's time to turn it on — this is too hot."

Bartlett said older people are especially vulnerable in the heat.

"For a plethora of reasons. Medicine, just age in general sometimes prohibits that heat response," she said. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports nationwide more than 1,300 people die from extreme heat each year. For some renters, their homes may not offer relief because they may not have air conditioning.

Experts in Knox County said landlords may be legally required to keep the air conditioning running, but only in some circumstances.

Michael Davis, a lawyer in Knoxville, said landlords are generally not required to provide air conditioning. However, they may be required to keep renters' air conditioning running in these hot temperatures.

"Air conditioning is not really considered an essential service under the law that applies to Knox County," Davis said. "In emergency situations, if the landlord has provided the air conditioner in the past or they provided the air conditioning unit when they moved in [they may need to continue providing it.]"

Since temperatures inside could reach well over 100 degrees, it might make air conditioning repair an essential service. 

"If it's threatening someone's health and safety, it may rise to that level," Davis said. 

Davis recommends renters contact their landlords in writing if their air conditing doesn't work. If the property owner fails to fix it or work on a solution, there are resources in Knoxville that may be able to help. They can call 211 for help if they are elderly or considered a vulnerable person. The CAC also has programs that can help.

They can also reach out for legal assistance, and an inspector could end up being sent to the renter's home. If they find a code violation, a violation order is issued requiring the property owner to resolve the problem.

Attorneys at Knoxville Legal Aide said if renters go through all of those steps and the landlord does not repair the air conditioning system, renters can give them a written notice specifying the breach.

They can also do one of several things like asking for a deduction cost in rent or getting substitute housing. However, issues with the air conditioning do not give people a legal excuse not to pay rent. 

If you don't have air conditioning or services aren't able to reach you in time because of the high volume of calls, CAC recommends finding ways to keep cool. 

"Get out of the house during the day. Go enjoy a senior center if you're an older adult. Go walking at the mall, go to a store, go see a movie. Do something where there's air conditioning so you can stay cool," Bartlett said. 

Experts say now is also the time to check on older family members who might be at risk of heat stroke. 

Renters in Tennessee can reach out to the Knox County Community Action Committee for help. They operate an emergency home repair program to help people stay in their homes and be independent. They must meet income and other eligibility requirements, though. 

The Knox County CAC is also collecting donations to help people buy fans so they can stay cool over the summer. For more information, people can reach out to the organizers at 865-637-6700 or at 865-546-3500. They can also email cecelia.waters@knoxcac.org.

In cases involving elderly and vulnerable people, calling 211 may also help people find ways to stay cool. They can help connect people with services like shelter, health facilities and financial assistance.

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