Editor's note: This story was updated to include information about city code enforcement related to air conditioning appliances.

On the heels of a record-breaking heat wave and with high temperatures expected to remain through the summer, Austin officials are looking to require that all housing across the city is equipped to keep residents cool.

What's happening?

Austin already requires that any residential appliances, such as an air-conditioning unit, are in working order. However, there's no city mandate for air conditioning to be included in housing in the first place.

As Austinites have endured dozens of 100-degree-plus days throughout the summer and with more extreme heat still expected, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes is proposing a new requirement for property owners to maintain equipment to keep all rooms in a residence at a "comfortable" level well below outside temperatures.

“Just taking one step outside will show you why we need this. When our neighbors are collapsing from heat illness, suffering from exhaustion, and facing high wildfire risks, they’re going to need a cool place to stay," Fuentes said in a statement. "This item will bring our Land Development Code up-to-date and make AC cooling a requirement for all residencies.”

Fuentes' resolution would kick off a city code amendment process including engagement with relevant stakeholders in Austin and consideration of industry best practices related to air-conditioning standards. A draft ordinance on the topic to solidify any new rules is requested by next August.

The context

If the change is eventually adopted, Austin would join Dallas and Houston as large Texas cities with air conditioning provisions.

While no such measures exist under state law, Houston requires residential cooling to either 80 degrees or 20 degrees below outside temperatures. Dallas has limits of 85 degrees or 15 degrees cooler than outdoors in place.

The big picture

Through what's turned out to be among Austin's hottest summers on record, Austin-Travis County EMS medics have responded to well over 700 heat-related calls since June. Just over three weeks into August, ATCEMS said it had seen almost 100 more calls through that month alone than in 2022.
While its responses took place throughout the city, the EMS department said it doesn't track whether incidents took place inside a residence versus any other location.

A spokesperson with the EMS agency said they're not aware of any local heat-related deaths this year. However, Fuentes' measure notes at least 279 people across Texas died last summer due to the heat.

Put in perspective

While no rules specific to air conditioning are on the books today, Austin's maintenance code is lined up with international standards requiring working appliances. One benchmark is the "delta T" standard, or the difference between the intake temperature of a unit and the temperature of the air it puts out.

Austin responded to more than 200 reports of air conditioning violations between April and October 2022, the most recent period with available data, according to the city's code compliance division. An overview of violations logged in that time found that:
  • The vast majority—more than 80%—of incidents were recorded across East or Central East Austin in City Council districts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • More than two-thirds came from apartment complexes with 100 or more units.
  • Most were for issues with air conditioning units not blowing or cooling properly, while the rest ranged from leaks to faulty wiring.
In response to a request asking Fuentes' constituents about their city policy priorities, resident Chandra Simms shared how many tenants have experienced maintenance issues throughout Austin this summer and asked that council set more strict rules about cooling in residences.

"I have had several lease clients reach out to me because the air conditioning in their rental home is not cooling below 90-95 degrees," Simms said in a Facebook reply to a post from Fuentes. "In every case, the landlord or property manager has replied to the tenant that they aren’t required to provide air conditioning, which is not technically true because triple digit temperatures pose a health and safety risk but because the state does not impose requirements and the City of Austin only requires minimum standards for providing heat to a rental property, they feel they have the legal cover to let issues with defective HVAC units in their rental properties go unaddressed."