Q: I'm renting a place in a large home in Minneapolis where there are other residents also renting a specific unit in the home. Each of us was always billed separately for gas for our specific unit, and then we each would pay our own bill.
Beginning in November 2022, without notice from our landlord, all the residents started being charged for gas for all the common areas in the home. First of all, there is nothing in the lease agreement that specifies the landlord can assess us for "house" utilities.
Wouldn't the total gas charge for common areas, which includes the office and the garage, need to be on a single meter that requires notice of costs and specifics of how each tenant is charged? If so, can we be reimbursed for all past charges we paid until the time the property owner complies with the legal requirement?
A: In Minnesota, there can be no changes made to a lease by the landlord or the tenant while the current lease is still running, unless both parties agree to it. Then, once the current lease ends, your landlord can propose changes to how gas charges or other utilities are paid, with appropriate notice of 30 or 60 days, depending on what your lease states.
If a tenant objects to the terms in the new lease, then they can vacate the property. You didn't mention if your lease terminated in November 2022, which would allow your landlord to change the terms of your lease if they gave you proper notice.
In addition to waiting until the lease ends and giving proper notice of this change in utility billing, your landlord must also follow specific restrictions regarding a shared meter. If your lease ended in November and you weren't given a new lease to sign, then you are considered to be on a month-to-month lease, and your landlord still needs to give you appropriate notice of the change for how the gas bill should be paid going forward.
The single-meter law in Minnesota doesn't prevent a landlord from portioning out a utility service payment among units for those common areas, and either including utility costs in a unit's rent or billing for utility charges separate from rent, but there are conditions the landlord must follow.
The first condition is to include giving prospective tenants notice of the total utility cost for the building for each month of the most recent year. The landlord must also put in writing how they will fairly split the bill, how often the tenants will be billed for each utility and must include a lease provision stating that, if a tenant requests it, the landlord must provide a copy of the actual utility bill for the building along with each apportioned utility bill.
If a tenant requests it, the landlord must also provide past copies of actual utility bills for any period of the tenancy that the renter received an apportioned utility bill. By Sept. 30 of each year, a landlord of a single-metered residential building such as yours, who bills for gas and electrical utility charges separate from rent, must inform their tenants in writing of the possible availability of energy assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and must provide the toll-free phone number of the administering agency.
As you can see, there are several steps a landlord must follow with a shared meter, and failure to follow one of these conditions is a violation of the Covenants of Habitability.
You can talk to your landlord and let them know the single-meter requirements weren't met and you would like to be reimbursed for gas charges back to November 2022. You can also file a rent escrow action in the county where you live requesting reimbursement of these utility charges from November 2022 to the present time, since your landlord violated the Covenants of Habitability by not meeting the conditions for a single meter.
If you would like additional assistance with this matter you could contact HOMELine, a tenants' rights organization, at 612-728-5767 or email their attorneys at homelinemn.org.
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 email@example.com. Information provided by readers is not confidential.