Q: My family and I started renting a townhouse in Burnsville recently. Within a week, we discovered our first cockroach. Trying not to panic, but being overwhelmed with moving and a new baby, we shrugged it off. We found another cockroach a couple weeks later, and immediately reported it to our management. Pest control did not come out until a week later. We kept finding cockroaches, so pest control has had to come out twice. We’ve been finding cockroaches at all life cycles: nymphs, adolescents, adults and even eggs in our couch. We’ve asked for a lease termination, but have been refused. In fact, it’s been implied that we brought them with us, which is not true.
We moved from a luxury townhouse in Rochester, and our old place has had no roaches before or after our stay. We purchased all new boxes. We did not store our furniture anywhere, and moved in one day. The townhouse we’re renting now was vacant for two to four months before we moved in. Four weeks before we moved in, we walked through it and saw that our unit was trashed with garbage everywhere. We were assured everything would be fixed and cleaned up, and were told the previous owners had been evicted.
I can reasonably prove we did not being the roaches with us, and it is far more likely they were present before we got there. We don’t want to pursue a rent escrow action because that only forces them to treat the problem, which they are currently doing. We want to leave, and maybe even get our money back for the trauma of living with roaches for the entire first month of the lease. What are our rights?
A: Minnesota law requires all landlords to keep their rental unit compliant with all safety and health codes, in reasonable repair and fit for the use intended, unless the tenant caused the problem or repair. You have a couple options available to you. You can file a tenant remedies action (TRA), which is what a tenant files to ask the court to require the landlord to complete or undertake repairs to comply with state law or to make the unit habitable.
You may have the right to bring an Emergency TRA, which typically covers lack of running water, hot water, heat or electricity, or other items that rise to an emergency status. A cockroach infestation when you have a family in the unit may not qualify as an emergency, especially since it sounds like some time has passed since you discovered the problem, so you should consider not pursuing the TRA on an emergency basis. Your landlord could argue that they need more time to fix the cockroach problem, or as they’ve stated already, that you caused the problem. Since you didn’t cause the cockroach infestation, and you have proof, the landlord must resolve the problem and compensate you for the loss of use and enjoyment of your rental home. Even though your landlord is currently treating the problem, it sounds like there are still cockroaches everywhere, so you can request in your TRA that your lease be terminated since the infestation isn’t going away. Attach any proof you have, such as photos of your current rental home before the cleanup, with garbage everywhere, a statement from your previous landlord stating there were no cockroaches in your previous rental, along with any other evidence.
Another option would be to let your landlord know that you will be filing a TRA unless they allow you to terminate your lease early. Your landlord may then let you out of your lease so that they can address the cockroach issue head on and avoid going to court.
A third option would be to take advantage of a buyout clause, if there is one written into your lease. Some leases have a buyout provision allowing tenants to pay two months’ rent to terminate their lease early. However, since you asked to terminate the lease, and your landlord said no, there most likely isn’t a buyout clause in your lease. Make sure to get any agreement with your landlord in writing and 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.