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LANDLORDS AND TENANTS: RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

Author / Coordinator: Mike Hatch
Office of minnesota attorney general
March 2007

Introduction:

The rights and duties of landlords and tenants in Minnesota are spelled out in federal law, state statutes, local ordinances, safety and housing codes, common law, contract law and a number of court decisions. These responsibilities can vary from place to place around the state.

Certain rights and duties apply to landlords and tenants everywhere in Minnesota. This article attempts to explain those rights but should not be considered legal advice to use in resolving specific landlord-tenant problems or questions. It is a summary of the laws that govern relevant parts of the landlord-tenant relationship.

Tenants in federal housing and other forms of subsidized housing have additional rights under federal law not covered here. Those tenants should check their leases for information.

Minn. Statute § 504B.181, subd. 2(b) (2002) requires landlords to notify tenants that the full handbook that this excerpt was extracted is available to them.

Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities is written and published by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office as required by Minn. Stat. § 504B.275 (2002). This edition was published in January 2003 in St. Paul, Minnesota. This handbook is available through the Attorney General’s web site as well as in other formats upon request. The Attorney General’s Office values persity and is an equal opportunity employer.

LANDLORDS AND TENANTS: RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

According to Minnesota law, when the owner of a house, apartment, room or other living space agrees to give to someone else – for a fee – the temporary use of that place, the two have entered into a legally binding rental contract. It doesn’t matter if the agreement is oral or in writing. It is an agreement to rent, and that means some of its most important terms are automatically defined by law. Some of these terms are fixed -that is, neither landlord nor tenant can change them. Other terms can be whatever the landlord and tenant want if both parties agree. The following pages describe what the law requires of both landlords and tenants in a typical rental agreement.

1. INSPECTING THE UNIT BEFORE SIGNING A LEASE

Prospective tenants should be allowed to see the rental unit before they pay any money. They should also be allowed to inspect the utilities, the appliances, the electrical system, the plumbing, heating and lights. Minnesota law permits landlords to provide utilities using a single meter and then pide the costs among the tenants. Landlords with single-metered residential buildings must provide prospective tenants with the total utility costs for the building for the most recent calendar year. Prospective tenants may–  if they choose, list the problems they discover, and may request the landlord sign the list before the potential tenants sign a lease. Landlords can refuse to cooperate (these are not “rights” legally enforceable in court), but cooperation is advised. To have a list is in the best interest of both landlord and tenant, since it protects all parties if there is a disagreement about who is responsible for any repairs.

Many, but not all, cities in Minnesota require landlords to license their apartments. In these cities, landlords who rent an unlicensed apartment may not be able to accept or keep rent. Prospective tenants and landlords should check with their local government authorities to determine if apartments need to be licensed.

2. REQUIRED MANAGEMENT BACKGROUND CHECK

The law requires landlords to do a background check of every manager employed, or applying to be employed, by the landlord. (1) A manager is anyone who is hired, or applying to be hired, by a landlord, and would have access to tenants’ units when necessary. (2) Background checks are done by the Superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), to find out if the manager has a criminal history. The following guidelines have been established by law for landlords to follow when hiring a manager.

If a person is convicted of first or second degree murder; first degree manslaughter; first, second or third degree assault; kidnapping; first, second, third or fourth degree criminal sexual conduct; first degree arson; harassment or stalking, (3) the person may never be hired as a residential manager and may be fired if the manager was hired pending the background check. (4)

If a person is convicted of third degree murder; second degree manslaughter; criminal vehicular homicide or injury; fourth or fifth degree assault; simple or aggravated robbery; false imprisonment; theft; burglary; terrorist threat; or non-felony harassment or stalking, (5) the person may not be hired as a manager unless it has been ten years since the conviction. (6)

The person also cannot be hired as a manager if there was a conviction for an attempt to commit one of these crimes, or a conviction for a crime in another state that would be a crime under Minnesota’s background check law. (7)

By July 1, 1996, all landlords must have requested a background check for all currently employed managers. (8) For a sample form, to obtain information regarding a background check, or to begin the background check process, owners and landlords can contact the Minnesota BCA, Criminal Justice Information System, 1246 University Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104, or call (651) 642-0670. Landlords must pay a fee for each background check. (9)

3. THE LEASE

The terms of any rental agreement are stated in the lease. This can be either a signed, written document, or an oral agreement. The landlord may ask for the tenant’s full name and date of birth on the lease. (28) If a building contains 12 or more residential units, a written lease is required to rent one of the units. (29) An owner who fails to provide a written lease as required is guilty of a petty misdemeanor. (30) If there are fewer than 12 residential units, an oral understanding is sufficient to rent one of the units.

Any tenant with a written lease must be given a copy of the written lease. If legal action is taken to enforce a written lease (except for the nonpayment of rent, disturbing the peace, malicious destruction of property, or for illegal activities, it is a defense for the tenant to show that the landlord did not give the tenant a lease. The landlord can argue against this defense by showing that the tenant had actual knowledge of the terms of the lease. (31)

If a tenant builds or buys a home, changes jobs or has health problems that require relocation, a tenant does not have a legal right to get out of a lease. A signed lease is legally binding, unless the lease itself contains provisions, which allow a tenant to break the lease, or the landlord and tenant agree to release the tenant from the terms of the lease. The only exception to this rule is that the “personal representative” of a renter’s estate may terminate a lease upon the death of the renter after two full months’ written notice. (32)

There are two kinds of leases and the laws are different for each:

1) The periodic tenancy lease (generally a month-to-month, automatic renewal rental agreement). (33) 2) The definite term lease (a rental agreement specifying a definite rental period, generally six months or a year). (34)  

4. DISCLOSURE TO THE TENANT

Before signing a lease, paying rent or paying a security deposit, a prospective tenant must be given a copy of all outstanding inspection orders for which a citation has been issued. (Citations are issued by a housing inspector when a housing code is violated and the health or safety of tenants is threatened.) In addition, a tenant or prospective tenant must be given a copy of all outstanding condemnation orders and declarations that the property is unfit for human habitation.

If the inspection order results in a citation but does not involve violations that threaten the health and safety of the tenant, the landlord (or person acting for the landlord) must post a summary of the inspection order in an obvious place in each building affected by the order. The landlord (or person acting for the landlord) must also post a notice that the inspection order is available for review by tenants and prospective tenants.

A landlord (or person acting for the landlord) has not violated these requirements if the housing inspector has not issued a citation, the landlord has received only an initial order to make repairs, the time allowed to finish the repairs has not run out, or less than 60 days has passed since the deadline for making the repairs.

Additionally, landlords who rent units built before 1978 must disclose all known lead-based paint and lead-based paint hazards in the unit, include a warning in the lease, and give renters a copy of the Environmental Protection Agency’s pamphlet, Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home. (43) Lead-based paint that is peeling (or its dust) may be especially hazardous to children’s health. Tenants who suspect that they have a lead-paint problem or would like to get more information, should call the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-5323 and request a copy of the EPA’s pamphlet, Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.

5. MAINTENANCE

According to Minnesota law the landlord is responsible to make sure that the rental unit is:

1) Fit to live in. 2) Kept in reasonable repair. 3) Kept in compliance with state and local health and housing codes.

It is illegal for a landlord to deny responsibility for such things. These landlord obligations cannot be waived. (51)

Some repairs or maintenance duties (like yard work) can become the duty of the tenant if:

1) Both parties agree in writing that the tenant will do the work; and 2) The tenant received adequate consideration (paid), either by a reduction in rent or direct payment from the landlord.

6. TENANTS MAY SEEK POLICE AND EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE

A landlord cannot evict, penalize or limit a tenant’s right to call the police or call for emergency assistance in response to a domestic incident or any other similar situation. Any lease provision that limits this right is illegal and void and a tenant may sue a landlord for $250 or actual damages, whichever is greater, and reasonable attorney’s fees, for violations of this provision. This law, however, does not prevent a landlord from taking appropriate action against a tenant for breach of lease, disturbing the peace and quiet of other tenants, damage to property, disorderly conduct, etc.

Additionally, while no municipality may require eviction of a tenant or otherwise charge or penalize a landlord for a tenant’s use of police or emergency assistance, this law does not preclude local ordinances from penalizing landlords for failure to abate nuisances or disorderly conduct on rental property. (75)  

7. REPAIR PROBLEMS

Minnesota law requires landlords to keep units in reasonable repair. This requirement cannot be waived. However, the landlord and the tenant can agree the tenant will do certain specific repairs or maintenance if:

1) This agreement is in writing; and 2) The tenant receives something adequate in return (for example, a rent reduction or payment from the landlord for the work)

If the tenant has trouble getting the landlord to make necessary repairs in the unit, there are six steps the tenant can take:

1) File a complaint with the local housing, health, energy or fire inspector – if there is one – and ask that the unit be inspected. If there is no city inspector for the community, write the landlord and request repairs within 14 days. If management fails to make such repairs, the tenant may file a rent escrow action. 2) Place the full rent in escrow with the court, and ask the court to order the landlord to make repairs. 3) Withhold the rent by depositing it with the court administrator. 4) Sue the landlord in district court under the Tenant’s Remedies Act. 5) Sue in conciliation court or district court for rent abatement (this is the return of part of the rent, or, in extreme cases, all of the rent). 6) Use the landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs as a defense to either the landlord’s Unlawful Detainer (eviction) action based on nonpayment of rent, or the landlord’s lawsuit for unpaid rent.

Let’s examine these, one at a time.

Calling In An Inspector

If a local housing, health, energy, or fire inspector is called by the tenant, and the inspector finds code violations in the unit, the inspector will give the landlord a certain amount of time to correct them. If the landlord does not make corrections, the inspector has the authority to serve a summons on the landlord to appear in court.

A landlord cannot retaliate (strike back) by filing an eviction notice, increasing rent, or decreasing services, because a tenant contacts an inspector.

Rent Escrow

A rent escrow action is a simplified procedure that permits a tenant to seek relief for housing violations on their own without the assistance of an attorney. Tenants may place rent in an escrow account when a landlord will not correct housing violations. Under the Rent Escrow Law, tenants can pay their rent to the court administrator rather than to the landlord, and ask the court to order the landlord to make repairs. A tenant may wish to speak with a private attorney or Legal Aid attorney for advice before proceeding. The following are the rules and procedures for rent escrow that must be strictly followed: As stated earlier, the housing inspector can order the landlord to make repairs if there are violations of the housing code. It is important to contact the inspector and get a copy of the order. If the repairs are not made within the time the inspector orders, a tenant can deposit rent with the court administrator along with a copy of the notice of code violation.

Even if there is no local housing code, Minnesota law says landlords must keep rental property fit to live in and in good repair. If a landlord has failed to maintain the dwelling so it is fit to live in, has not kept the dwelling in good repair, has not complied with state and local health and housing codes, or has violated the written or oral lease, the tenant must notify the landlord in writing. It is very important that the tenant keep a copy of this letter. If the problem is not corrected within 14 days, the tenant can deposit the rent payment with the court administrator along with a copy of the letter that was given to the landlord.

A tenant may file a rent escrow action any time after the requisite notice or inspection orders have expired. To file a rent escrow action, a tenant needs to pay to the court administrator all rent, if any, that is due.

There is a small filing fee, but the administrator can waive the fee if the tenant cannot pay it. The tenant must give the administrator a copy of the inspector’s order or the tenant’s letter to the landlord. The tenant should estimate how much it will cost to make the repairs. The tenant must also give the administrator the landlord’s name and address. A court administrator will help a tenant complete a rent escrow petition.

Once the rent has been deposited with the court, the court administrator will schedule a hearing. The hearing will take place within 10 to 14 days. In most cases, the court will notify the landlord of the hearing by mail. However, if fixing the housing code violation will cost more than the conciliation court limit (currently $7,500), then personal service is required. Someone other than the tenant must give the hearing notice to the landlord.  The landlord can take legal action to evict the tenant if the tenant does not deposit the full amount of rent in escrow with the court administrator.

After the hearing, if the tenant proves that a violation exists, the judge may do any of the following:

1) Order the landlord to fix the problem. 2) Allow the tenant to make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent. 3) Appoint an administrator to collect rent and order repairs. 4) Return all, none, or part of the rent to the tenant. 5) Order that future rent be paid to the court or that the rent be abated (eliminated or reduced), until repairs are made, or that part of the rent be abated or refunded. 6) Fine the landlord.

If the tenant does not prove that there is a housing code violation, or if the tenant does not deposit the full amount of rent with the court, then the money and deposit will be given to the landlord.

A tenant must follow the other terms of the lease while paying rent into escrow. (98) According to Minnesota law, a tenant’s rent escrow rights and remedies may not be waived or modified by any oral or written lease or other agreement. (99)

Using the Tenant’s Remedies Act

Under the Tenant’s Remedies Act, a tenant can sue for:

1) A health or housing code violation. 2) A violation of the landlord’s obligation to keep the rental unit in reasonable repair. 3) A violation of an oral or written rental agreement or lease.

Before going to court under this act, a tenant should talk to the landlord about the needed repairs and try to get the landlord to fix them. If the landlord does not make the repairs within a reasonable time, the tenant should:

1) Notify the local housing, health, energy, or fire inspector (if there is one). 2) Get a written copy of the inspector’s report. This will describe the problem and allow the landlord a certain number of days to repair it. If no inspector has been used, the tenant must inform the landlord in writing of the repair problem at least 14 days before filing a lawsuit. 3) Wait for the required time to pass, and then, if the repair work has not begun or progressed, bring suit in district court. In court, the tenant must produce evidence that the problem exists (and should submit a copy of the inspector’s report if there is one). The tenant must also explain how the problem can be resolved.

Rent Abatement

Before suing for rent abatement (reduction of all or part of rent), the tenant should try to get the landlord to make the repairs. Only after it appears the repairs won’t be made, and further requests seem fruitless, should the tenant try to bring a legal action for rent abatement.

The tenant should then be prepared to prove:

l) The existence of a serious condition(s) affecting safety, health or the fitness of the dwelling as a place to live. 2) The landlord was notified, or knew, or should have known, about the defective condition(s). 3) The landlord failed to repair the defective condition(s), or make adequate repairs, after having a reasonable time to do so.

Although it is unclear under present Minnesota law how the amount of rent reduction (damages or money) should be determined, the tenant may be able to recover either:

l) The difference in value between the condition the rental unit would have been in had the landlord met the landlord’s legal duty to make repairs, and the actual condition of the dwelling without the repairs. 2) The extent to which the use and enjoyment of the dwelling has been decreased because of the defect.

The tenant may sue for rent reduction in conciliation court if the amount the tenant is seeking is less than the maximum amount the conciliation court has jurisdiction to decide. If the tenant’s claim exceeds the conciliation court maximum, a lawsuit would have to be brought in district court, or, the amount the tenant is asking for would have to be reduced to the jurisdictional limit of conciliation court. (Currently, claims of up to $7,500 can be decided in conciliation court.)

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