Renting and the Law: Is tenant getting double-billed for water usage?

  • Article by: KELLY KLEIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 2:44 PM

Q: I rent from a multiunit double building with community heat and water. We are told the bills are divided by the square feet of each unit and then billed accordingly. My heat and water bill for last month was $139 for about 625 square feet of space. Usually, the heat is not even on, and the temperature in my place can range from 52 to 87 in December, January and February. I have no control whatsoever over the heat, except I am able to turn off the radiators in my place. I keep two of the three radiators off. My heating bill would be around $250 if the heat was on every day in my place.

I have contacted Xcel Energy and asked if the buildings have two separate meters for gas and water, since we are getting only one bill that covers both utilities. We are paying this bill that includes water, but then paying again for laundry-room usage — an additional $1.75 for each wash-and-dry cycle. I am wondering if this is legal; we seem to be double-paying for the water.

A: Minnesota law covers the billing of utilities on single-metered, multiple-dwelling buildings. Essentially, the statute permits a landlord to bill tenants for utilities, so long as: 1) before they sign the lease, the tenants are notified in advance of the total utility cost from the previous year; 2) the tenant is notified in the lease of the frequency of billing and the equitable method used to apportion the utilities; 3) the lease must include a clause permitting the tenant the right to inspect the actual bill for the building, as well as each apportioned bill; 4) the tenant may, upon the agreement of a landlord and tenant with a lease term of one or more year, have the option of agreeing to pay an annualized utility bill, and 5) the landlord must notify the tenant by Sept. 30 of each year about the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, including the toll-free number.

In your case, if the lease you signed meets the above requirements, and you were provided the appropriate estimates, then you probably have to pay the charges. You do have the right to review the actual bills for the building and each apportioned bill to see if you have been billed appropriately. If not, then you should consider discussing the bill with your landlord or contacting a lawyer to see if you can collect any overages.

As to the issue of charging for the use of the laundry machines and the water, it may be that your landlord has contracted with a private entity to place the machines in the building, and that the private entity has the right to collect the money as part of its income. It may also be that the $1.75 is intended to reimburse the landlord for the cost of the machines, beyond the cost of water. My guess is the landlord is making a small profit on the laundry, regardless of water charges, but the landlord has that right. So, I don’t believe there is enough to justify a lawsuit on that issue.

Smoking areas

Q: I am the owner and landlord of a building that has residential and commercial tenants in it. One of my residents has complained to me about smoking outside the building. We do have a designated smoking area, but it is beside the building and under the windows of a couple of residents who have not complained about it. I couldn’t find any regulations on how far away from the building smokers need to be. Are you aware of any regulation in Ramsey County or the city of St. Paul on this issue? Setting up a smoking area 50 feet away from the building would present some challenges for me as a building owner.

A: The Freedom to Breathe act passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007 takes precedence over the prior Ramsey County ordinances that covered smoking indoors. Freedom to Breathe places restrictions on smoking in the common areas of rental housing, but places no restrictions on outdoor smoking, and the control of such smoking is left to the landlord or manager of the property. The act specifically states that it does not cover outdoor smoking that occurs outside of bars, restaurants or rental premises, regardless of the distance from windows and doors.

So, you probably should write the tenant and let them know that, unfortunately, setting up a nonsmoking area 50 feet from the building will not work on the particular property, and that such a smoking area is not required by law. You do not have the right to prohibit people from smoking outside the building, and the complaining tenant needs to know that your hands are tied.

 

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 kklein@kleinpa.com, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.

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