Q: I moved into a rental unit just over one year ago. Upon renting, I was told that all I needed to pay for was Internet service and cable, so that is all I have paid. Then, last month I received a letter from Xcel Energy stating that the party that lived in my unit had not been paying for utilities since November 2012, which is when I moved into this apartment. The bill was almost $500. I have since made one payment for $115, just so my power would not be shut off.
Is there a way to get the owner to pay for this? There is nothing stated in our lease regarding utilities. I do know he has done this to other residents as well. I am overwhelmed, because I am on disability and work only part-time, which is the reason I rented this unit in the first place. The unit is cheaper, and I was told the utilities would be paid.
Do I have grounds to take him to court?
A: There is no law in Minnesota stating whether the landlord or the tenant must pay for utilities. The Minnesota Attorney General says that the parties may decide in the lease who is responsible, but that the lease should then include language designating the party responsible for the utilities. Absent any such language, you have a good argument that the landlord is responsible, since the landlord should have included that language in his lease.
Minnesota law does have a procedure whereby a tenant in a multi-unit building with a single meter can pay the utilities and then deduct this amount from rent. Your best and safest route would be to file a tenant remedies action with the court.
First, you need to write the landlord a letter setting forth the situation and asking that he pay the outstanding amounts. If he fails to make payment after 14 days, bring a copy of the letter to the courthouse and ask the people in housing court for the forms required to fill out a tenant remedies’ action. After completing the forms and serving the landlord, you will have a hearing where you can ask that the court allow you to deduct any utility payments from rent.
If you do not want to file a tenant remedies’ action, you could still follow the procedure contained in the law and deduct the utility payments from rent. You need to send copies of any shut-off notices and the utility bills to your landlord, informing the landlord of any payments you made. Then, if the landlord doesn’t pay within 48 hours, you may pay the outstanding utilities and deduct these amounts from rent.
Going forward, you should send any utility bills to your landlord, informing him that if he does not indicate he is making the payment within 48 hours, you will make the payment and deduct it from rent. If your lease says nothing about utilities, and you follow this procedure, you should be safe from eviction for nonpayment of rent. But this second route is not as safe as having a court issue an order outlining who is responsible to pay for utilities. You should also make sure to keep copies of everything you send to the landlord and the court.
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, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.