Q: Last August, the upstairs renters in our duplex caused an overflowing toilet, and the water came through to our apartment. It caused damage to our ceiling, wall and floor, but luckily only $150 worth of books were damaged. Our landlord gave us $500 off our rent for one month, which she viewed as a very generous offering. She said it was for the inconveniences of that month and future inconveniences. These “inconveniences” included having contractors upstairs for a month, often loud at early morning hours, debris falling from the second-floor apartment through the hole in our ceiling as the contractors worked, contractors walking into our apartment with no notice on at least two occasions, and our belongings being shifted into other rooms for two months as we waited for repairs in our own apartment. We have not had guests over for more than six months because we are embarrassed about our ceiling. The landlord expressed that she would need to do serious work in our apartment. We told her we were looking to buy a house, and so she decided to wait to make repairs until we move out. We have an offer accepted on a house and have given our 60 days’ notice as required in our lease. She expects rent payment until then but has notified us that she will make the needed repairs while we are still living here. The repairs include replastering and repainting the bedroom wall, stripping the popcorn ceilings and repainting the ceiling in the dining room, stripping the living and dining room floors and refinishing them, repairing the living room wall, and repairing the water damage to the kitchen ceiling. Our apartment is approximately 900 square feet, so this scale of renovation will render the apartment uninhabitable for us during the construction period, not to mention the danger of the current health pandemic; I am pregnant and therefore additionally concerned. We asked if she would consider allowing us to move out Sept. 14 and charge us for only half of September, but she refuses. It seems to me that we should either be able to stay through Sept. 30 without having major construction happening in the apartment while we are staying there, or be able to leave early without having to pay. She seems to be double-dipping by trying to get our money and a new tenant in for Oct. 1, without having to lose anything on her end. Do we have any rights here?
A: Minnesota state law requires landlords to keep their rental units in compliance with safety and health codes, in reasonable repair, and fit for the use intended. Even though your landlord deducted $500 off your rent for one month for the inconvenience of repairs, your place might likely be considered not fit for the use intended. However, your landlord doesn’t appear to be double-dipping to me since your monthly rental payment and any new tenant’s monthly rental payment isn’t occurring at the same time. Since there will be major repairs going on in your small unit while you’re trying to live there, a court may consider your place impossible to enjoy and not fit for the use intended. Often, a tenant in your situation can work with the landlord to provide another apartment that is suitable at the same rate until the lease runs out, or work out some other arrangement that is satisfactory. You are not getting what you paid for, but your landlord has several options available to resolve the problem, such as to move you into a different unit, put off starting construction on your unit until you leave, or allow you to move out early and deduct some rent. You should contact your landlord in writing and let her know that the current situation is not acceptable. If, after 14 days, the landlord and you cannot reach an agreement on an acceptable remedy to the problems, then you can file a rent escrow action. As part of that action you can ask that the court reduce the rent or possibly cancel the lease. If you reach an agreement with your landlord, make sure to get it 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. Information provided by readers is not confidential.