When a landlord has to provide utility service for tenants
A landlord usually does not have to provide public utilities to a tenant unless the city or town has a law that requires landlords to do so. In some situations, the lease might say that the landlord is required to provide and possibly pay for utility service.
A landlord or tenant should check local laws to know if the landlord must provide public utilities.
If there is a written or oral agreement where the landlord agrees to provide or pay for any water, gas, or electric service the landlord must pay for the services to make sure they are available to the tenant throughout the term of the lease and must pay the utility company in a timely manner so as not to cause any interruption in service.
Notification of shut off when the landlord does not pay the utility bill
If your building has 3 or more units and the landlord doesn’t pay his utility bill (gas, water, electric), the utility company cannot shut off service to the tenants unless it tells the tenants beforehand. The utility must give the notice to the tenants at least 10 days before the shut-off. The notice must contain:
- The shut-off date;
- A statement of the tenants’ rights to pay the amount due and the tenants’ right to deduct whatever is paid from the rent;
- A statement of the tenants’ right to ask the court to appoint a someone called a receiver who will collect rents and make sure utilities are being paid;
- The amount of the bills due and the average monthly bill; and
- The name of a local, free legal services agency.
A landlord has a duty to pay for utility service in a building with one meter
In an apartment building with more than one unit but only one meter, it is hard to find out how much each tenant owes for utility service. In most cases, the landlord pays for the service, and the tenants are charged by paying rent that includes an amount to pay the utility service. When this happens, you might not know how much the landlord is charging you and the other tenants for service.
Your landlord cannot make you pay for service that goes through a master meter unless he first tells you in writing how much each tenant must pay for utilities. The total of the payments cannot be more than the amount of the bill. The landlord must give you a copy of the utility bill if you ask for it. This law does not apply to leases in which the landlord sets a fixed rent amount without setting aside the cost of the utilities.
Illegal actions that your landlord cannot do
Unless you and the landlord agree in writing, the landlord cannot make you pay for utilities during your lease. It is against the law for a landlord to:
- Stop utility service, which means the landlord cannot ask the utility to shut off service or allow the utility to disconnect service by not paying the bill.
- Cut off your service by tampering with equipment or lines.
- Disconnect your utility service if you are late paying your rent; this is called an illegal lockout.
- Make you pay for service to other tenants’ units.
- Usually, it is against the law for a landlord to make you pay utility bills that include service to common areas of the building like hallways, stairwells, and basements shared with other tenants.
- Note: Requiring you to pay for utilities outside of your unit is legal only if the landlord does all of the following things before you sign a lease or pay a security deposit:
- Tells you in writing which areas of the building are served by your meter;
- Gives you copies of the utility bills for your unit for the past 12 months unless you tell the landlord in writing not to;
- Does not make you collect money for utilities from other tenants; and
- Tells you in writing how much of your rent you can take out to pay for utility service outside of your unit.
What to do if landlord stops paying for public utilities
If your landlord unlawfully stops paying or asks the utility company to shut off your service, you can sue the landlord for a court order to reconnect the utility. You can also sue for damages in the amount of a full month’s rent for each month that service was stopped, and for any other losses because service was off.
If the landlord willfully disregarded your rights, a court might also give you special damages up to $300 per month or $5,000 per month divided by the number of affected tenants, whichever is less.
When the landlord does not pay the bill, you or the other tenants may pay for the service. If you do, the utility company must apply the payment to the landlord’s account. The law says that you can withhold any payments you make from your rent. It is against the law for the landlord to raise the rent to collect all or part of the amounts that you kept from the rent payment. If the tenant’s payments are enough to pay the past due amount, the utility company cannot disconnect service or must immediately restore service if it was disconnected.
When the landlord has not paid the bill, any tenant can ask the utility company to put the bill in the tenant’s name. If the tenant has decent credit, or pays a deposit and agrees to pay future bills, then the utility company cannot disconnect service and must restore service to any tenant that was disconnected.
Can you sue a landlord who makes you pay for utility service to common areas
Yes, you can sue the landlord if he or she makes you pay for utilities to other apartment units or to common areas of the building without making the required disclosures to you.
You can also sue the landlord for changing the lease from landlord-paid utilities to tenant-paid utilities without telling you during the term of the lease. In this case, you can sue the landlord to get back the money you already paid. If the court finds that the landlord acted intentionally, the court may award triple damages. The court can also award you your court costs and attorney fees.