When Florence Griggs moved into her rental property 35 years ago in Fifth Ward, she had to buy her own air-conditioning window unit because her landlord wasn’t required to install central AC.

Heat Week

Last year, Griggs, 84, spent about $600 to replace her air-conditioning window-unit. However, without the help of a Houston-based organization, she would be sitting in her room without AC due to the rising costs of her electric bill.

Griggs isn’t alone. The Houston Landing reported on the poorest communities that tend to be the hottest pockets of the city. They also are the areas with the least access to air conditioning. Across the Houston metro area, nearly 23,000 housing units lack access to cooling systems and air conditioners, according to census data

For Houstonians who rent homes and suffer from the heat due to a lack of functioning air conditioners, there are some options for finding help. 

What the law says

According to the Texas Property Code (section 92.052), landlords are required to “make a diligent effort to repair or remedy a condition” if that condition “materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant,” and if the tenant has notified the landlord about the issue. But if the tenant owes rent, then the landlord is not required to make the repairs.

A window air condition unit is propped up on a bucket outside Florence Griggs’s home, Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

What you need to do if your landlord won’t fix the AC

Air conditioning isn’t mentioned in the state property code, but according to the Tenants’ Rights Handbook published by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the State Bar of Texas, a lack of heat or air conditioning is an example of something that materially affects the health and safety of an ordinary tenant.

In the city of Houston, a cooling system would only be provided if a home does not have window screens, otherwise the landlord must keep the rental unit at 20 degrees below the outside temperature. 

Often tenant advocates like Texas Housers are alarmed by the amount of tenants living with broken or malfunctioning air conditioning systems with little to no reprieve. Landlords may leave air conditioning systems in disrepair for weeks or months, leaving residents to call Houston’s overwhelmed and underfunded code enforcement department. 

And when residents call 311, Texas state anti-retaliation law forbids landlords from retaliating for only six months. After that time is up, landlords can find a reason to evict tenants who complain.

Moving into a rental unit

Texas Tenant Advisor advises people to take a tour of the unit, request any repairs and research the landlord before signing a lease agreement. 

When moving into a rental unit, Jon-Ross Trevino, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, said individuals need to stay up to date with rent in order to request repairs. Any requests need to be done in writing and sent in through certified mail. 

Texas Tenant Advisor advises people to keep a copy of any repairs they have requested. The notice should include the date, the problem, name and address of the residency. The landlord would then be legally required to fix it within seven days.  

However, the burden of proof then falls on tenants to show to a court that the landlord is retaliating, Trevino said. 

“Air conditioners will break down, usually from normal wear and tear, and to no fault of the tenant, and it puts them in a pretty difficult situation because of the heat,” Trevino said. “If the landlord doesn’t fix it, it’s usually a kind of burdensome process for the tenants and one that is not exactly tenant friendly.” 

Although tenants can sue their landlord, it takes time, legal advice and paying for fees, said Julia Orduña, Texas Regional Director for Texas Housers. 

“If a tenant shows up and says, ‘Well, my landlord didn’t take care of my AC unit, and that’s why I didn’t pay rent,’ the judge is going to tell them ‘Well, that’s not a legal standing, because there is no way to like counter sue in eviction court,’” Orduña said.

Residents who have evidence that their landlord is intentionally interrupting their air-conditioning unit or electricity, can request an emergency hearing with the court, Trevino said. 

If a resident wants to repair their own unit, they can and then seek reimbursement from their landlord through a reduced rent or going to court, he said. 

Where to receive help from 

Residents can call 311, the city’s customer service department, to complain about the lack of air-conditioning in their unit.   

“Just because someone calls 311 doesn’t mean that there’s actually going to be a solution or a remedy that comes out of it,” Orduña said. “But it is good to log. So the city knows that these are consistent and persistent issues, especially within certain complexes.” 

Individuals can call 1-800-733-8394 or put in an application online to receive free legal aid from Lone Star Legal Aid.  Tenants can call 713-743-2094 to receive legal assistance with the University of Houston’s Law Center. 

Additional resources: 

If an individual is unable to connect with a local legal aid or if you have a hearing within five days, contact the Texas Legal Services Center at 855-270-7655

Carmen Cavezza is an organizer for the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience (CEER) in Houston. CEER connects residents to resources across the region such as finding air conditioners throughout the summer. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

BakerRipley, a nonprofit organization in Houston, offers utilities’ assistance to residents who qualify. The assistance is limited, however. This year, the funding – $15 million – ran out by March for electric and gas. A single-family home must also make $21,870 a year or less to qualify for benefits. 

Although the nonprofit organization ran out of funds, Elizabeth Hale, communications manager for the organization, said tenants should still submit an application in case they receive more funds throughout the year. Additionally, in January, all tenants can apply or reapply for more funds for the new year.   

Still, residents, such as those on a fixed-income, are likely to benefit if they qualify. 

Veterans who are facing utility or rental issues are also able to use veterans services available to them, such as with their local Veterans Affairs office. There, veterans can also get free legal aid. 

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...

Angelica Perez is a civic engagement reporter for the Houston Landing. A Houston native, she is excited to return to the city after interning at The Dallas Morning News as a breaking news intern in the...