Q: I have been renting a single-family home in Sartell, Minn., for almost five years. There has been water damage to the kitchen ceiling, walls and pantry, starting in 2016. The landlord did have someone repair the kitchen ceiling and walls, but the water kept coming in and causing more damage. I contacted my landlord several times, but the damage was never repaired. I finally called the city inspector in March, and that got my landlord moving on the repairs. I have been the perfect tenant and have always paid my rent on time. Can I file for back rent that I paid when I had to move out for two weeks while workers made the repairs? Also, can I file to get rent back for previous months, due to not having a habitable place to live?
A: Minnesota law requires landlords to keep their rental units in reasonable repair, in compliance with safety and health codes, and fit for the use intended. These requirements cannot be waived by either the landlord or the tenant, in a written lease or otherwise.
Tenants who are renting homes, apartments or rooms that need repairs should send a letter to their landlord, requesting that the repairs be made within 14 days. If the landlord fails to make those repairs within 14 days, then the tenant may file a rent-escrow action in the county where they live. The court will provide an affidavit for the tenant to complete and sign, and tenants will be required to pay their rent to the court, if any is due at that time. The court holds the rent money until the case is resolved.
Typically, tenants will request rent abatement at the same time that they file their rent-escrow action. The Minnesota Supreme Court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals have allowed tenants to sue and get back some or all of their rent paid, even after moving out of the rental unit, when a landlord did not make the necessary repairs while the tenant lived there.
You don’t say whether you incurred any expenses relating to moving out for two weeks. Did you have to pay rent somewhere else? Did you have to go back and forth between your unit and the temporary housing to gather fresh clothes every day? Did you have any cleaning expenses related to the water damage? All of these things might help you prove your case, as to whether the unit was habitable and whether you incurred any damages. Make sure you reconstruct the direct costs incurred as a result of the water damage, and request that your landlord reimburse you for these items. You should not make things up, and if you don’t have any damages, that is not the end of the world.
First, you should contact your landlord and request a rent refund for the two-week period you had to move out. You should also request a partial rent refund for the months that your place was uninhabitable, as well as for any damages related to water damage.
If your landlord does not agree to your terms, then you should file an action to recover rent paid for the two weeks you had to move out, along with rent paid for the months that your place was uninhabitable. If you have to go to court, you can ask that the court order the landlord to pay you the above sums. There is a legal term, called partial constructive eviction, that refers to tenants not being able to properly use part of their unit as a result of damage that the landlord failed to repair. If this is relevant in your case, you should make sure to base your request for partial back rent on that legal argument.
It is always best to try and work out a resolution with your landlord before going to court. If you do work out an agreement with your landlord, make sure you get it in writing, and have it signed by both parties.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.