Q: My daughter and three of her friends signed a lease last December for a house to rent in St. Paul near the University of St. Thomas where they all go to school. The lease started in June 2020. The ability to sublease the house for the summer went bust when COVID hit and the college world went virtual. The girls paid $750 each all summer to keep the house, thinking they would return to school this fall. All of their classes are now online. These kids rented an off-campus house months before COVID. Are they stuck paying this rent with no options to get out of it? Some have actually decided to take a semester break because of COVID and their dislike for virtual learning. I realize this rental property is someone's income source as well, so it is a hardship on everyone. Is there any recourse in this situation?
A: In Minnesota, there are several legal reasons to terminate a lease early, including military duty, death, domestic abuse or a judge's order. Many leases include a break-lease clause, which allows tenants to pay a couple of months' rent to terminate their lease early due to unforeseen circumstances. You should check your daughter's lease language for a provision allowing her to pay a fee in order to end her lease early. If there isn't such a clause in her lease, then you should contact the landlord directly and request an early termination of her lease. You can offer to pay one or two months' rent so the landlord has time to find a replacement tenant. If the landlord agrees to let her out of the lease, make sure to get that agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
If you aren't able to work out a deal with your daughter's landlord, many colleges and universities offer free or low-cost legal services for their students in these situations. I contacted St. Thomas to see if it had such a service, and it does not, but it advises students to contact HOMELine, a local tenants' rights organization, at 612-728-5767. HOMELine has attorneys on staff who can assist tenants with their rental issues.
Lease termination clarified
Q: We're a management company and are reviewing your article in the Star Tribune on Nov. 29. Could you please clarify if we can not renew a lease agreement at this time if the resident is on a month-to-month lease and does not owe any rent, during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: Prior to the pandemic, landlords could decide not to renew a lease as long as the nonrenewal was not for an unlawful reason, such as discrimination or retaliation. Since March, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has issued public health and safety orders that limit a landlord's ability to terminate leases and evict tenants. In the most recent executive order, landlords are prohibited from terminating leases and evicting tenants except in certain specific instances, such as endangering the safety of other residents, selling or possessing drugs on the property or significantly damaging the property. The idea behind the law is to protect people from having to move during the pandemic and to promote public safety; when people move there is a lot of contact with others, so evictions are allowed only in very limited situations. All of these exceptions are questions of specific fact, and courts are very circumspect when a landlord attempts to assert that tenants' activities rise to the level required by the order.
The executive order allows one additional permissible basis for refusing to renew a tenant's lease, and that is when the property owner or owner's family is moving into the property that will be vacated by the tenant.
In a recent answer, I stated that a landlord can give a tenant a notice to vacate, so long as the notice to vacate is not given for a specific reason. In that answer, I was discussing what the law was prior to the pandemic and the various executive orders issued by Gov. Walz. At this time, landlords may not issue a notice to terminate unless that notice is based upon one of the exceptions specifically set forth in the executive order. So, to clarify, until Gov. Walz changes the terms of this order, a landlord may not simply provide a tenant a notice to terminate if the tenant is on a month-to-month lease and does not owe any rent.
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.