Tenants routinely have issues with their landlords, especially regarding property damage that the landlord refuses to adequately fix. This article is a brief overview of common problems and potential solutions. It quickly looks at what a landlord is obligated to do, then discusses the remedies available to tenants, and how the remedies should be carried out. Finally, the article provides a few resources that might be of further help to Minnesota tenants.
What Must the Landlord Do?
Landlords owe certain obligations to their tenants regarding a leased residence. First, they must keep the premises “in reasonable repair” and “fit for the use intended by the parties”. Second, landlords must keep the premises in compliance with state and local health and safety laws. Third, landlords must do everything they promised to do in the lease. Additionally, they must make the premises reasonably energy efficient.
What Tenant Remedies are Available?
Minnesota provides a quick remedy for severe problems that make the premises unlivable, though not many repair issues rise to this level. When faced with such problems, tenants can file an Emergency Tenant Remedies Action.
Emergency Tenant Remedies Action
When tenants face extreme issues, such as loss of power or heat, tenants can pursue relief in the form of an “Emergency Tenant Remedies Action” (ETRA). To do this, tenants must go to the Housing Court office on the third floor of the Hennepin County Government Center at 300 South 6th Street. Once there, the tenant will file the ETRA, filling out paperwork describing the emergency. The document to be filled out is provided at the end of this article, titled “ETRA Petition for Relief”. The paperwork is reviewed immediately, and if the issue is serious enough, an emergency hearing will be scheduled for a time within the next few days. Tenants will have to pay the $322 filing fee unless the fee is waived because of low income.
For less severe repair problems, such as leaks, cracked windows, broken refrigerators or ovens, or infestations, tenants have many options for relief.
If a tenant believes that a landlord has failed to keep the property up to health and safety standards, the tenant cay call in an inspector. Usually, it will take around a week for the inspector to come by and inspect. If the inspector finds code violations, he or she will tell the landlord and allow the landlord a set amount of time to fix the violations. If the landlord fails to do so, the inspector can force the landlord to appear in court. Or, if the time given by the inspector has passed, a tenant can bring a Rent Escrow Action as described below.
Rent Escrow Action
In addition to health and safety standards, not keeping the premises “in reasonable repair” can be grounds for filing a Rent Escrow Action. The first step is to document the problems—take pictures, make note of how long the problems have existed, etc. Then, the tenant should write a letter to the landlord listing the problems, requesting repairs, and making note of the date. The letter should also include that the tenant plans to file a Rent Escrow Action; landlords will likely recognize this language. Tenants must keep a copy of this letter for themselves.
Hopefully, receiving such a letter will be enough to cause the landlord to make repairs. If fourteen days have passed since the landlord received the letter, however, and the landlord has not made the requested repairs, tenants can file their action. Again, tenants will need to visit the Housing Court on the third floor of the Hennepin County Government Center, bringing with them a copy of the letter they sent to the landlord at least fourteen days prior. There will be a $322 filing fee, unless the tenant is low income in which case the fee may be waived. Once there, the tenant will fill out a Petition for Relief. This document has straight forward questions about the damage, the cost to fix the damage, the sort of notice provided to the landlord, and information about the tenant’s rent—instructions for filling this out are attached. Upon completion, the clerk will set a hearing for within 10-14 days. The tenant must pay to the court all the rent that will be due to the landlord before the hearing.
At the scheduled hearing, the tenant will need to prove his or her damages. This involves telling the court about the problem, how long it’s been around, what actions (if any) the landlord took upon finding out, and how the problem has negatively affected the tenant. Pictures and any other evidence will be presented at this hearing. Tenants can ask the court to order repairs, and to reduce rent until the repairs are done, or tenants can ask to receive payment for the damage they have suffered.
Conciliation Court, or “small claims court”, provides another option for tenants. Tenants must complete forms, giving the name and address of the landlord and the tenant, the amount of the claim (how much damage the tenant has suffered), and the legal reason for the claim (what did the landlord do or fail to do that caused the damage). This requires a $70 filing fee, and the fee will be added to the claim and will be won back if the claim is successful.
Small claims court can only hear disputes of under $15,000, and the court can only give monetary damages—it cannot order the landlord to fix the property. Tenants can appear at small claims court without the help of an attorney. Tenants who represent themselves should plan ahead, carefully considering what facts they want to tell the court and how to do so in an organized way. Clearly, all evidence must be brought to court and all witnesses must be present on the date of the hearing. The court will not make a decision right away, but will mail the opinion to each party. The court’s ruling will take effect within 20 days of when the judgment is mailed.
Tenants also have the option of withholding rent when faced with a repair issue, but this is not a good option. By withholding rent, tenants are breaching their lease agreement, and landlords can respond by beginning eviction proceedings. While a serious repair issue (that the landlord knew about and had time to fix, but didn’t) is a defense to eviction if proven, tenants take a risk by relying on this defense. Also, tenants must bring the complete amount of rent withheld to court when summoned. If the tenant does not bring this money, they may not have the chance to offer their defense, and they may be evicted.
Rent Escrow Actions and Conciliatory Court are good options for tenants looking to either force the landlord to repair or to receive monetary damages. Neither of these options exposes tenants to the risk of being evicted. As such, tenants should not withhold rent as a means to solve landlord issues.
It should be noted that landlords cannot retaliate against tenants who utilize any of these methods for relief. Tenants who are having repair issues should not fear retribution for trying to get the damage repaired.
When Will the Court Waive the Filing Fee?
The $322 filing fee can be waived in three general situations. First, the fee can be waived if the tenant’s income is at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. Second, if the tenant is on some sort of public assistance, the court might waive the fee. Third, when a tenant can show that he or she does not have the money to pay the filing fee, the court may still waive the fee. The process for waiving filing fees is described on the Minnesota Courts website at http://www.mncourts.gov/district/50/?page=1982.
What Other Resources Are Helpful?
There are many resources on the internet that can help Minnesota tenants with their landlord disputes.
The Minnesota Courts website provides guidance for tenants who are representing themselves in a dispute, including landlord/tenant issues.
The Office of the Attorney General website makes available an extensive publication discussing tenant rights throughout the entire process of renting property.
HOME Line provides free assistance to Minnesota tenants through its website with its telephone hotline. Minneapolis residents must pay a small fee, but other Minnesota tenants can receive free advice from the organization.