Landlords and Tenants: Rights and Responsibilities
During the Tenancy
Tenants must pay rent on the due date, whether they have a periodic lease or a definite term lease. The due date and amount of rent are set by the lease. A landlord receiving rent or other payments from a tenant in cash must provide a written receipt for payment immediately upon receipt if the payment is made in person, or within three business days if payment in cash is not made in person.(59) If a tenant does not pay the rent, the landlord may take legal action to evict the tenant.
When an apartment is rented to individuals who will live as roommates, 100 percent of the rent is due from the unit. Typically, roommates come to an agreement as to how the rent cost will be divided. However, if a roommate vacates the unit while the lease is still in effect, the rent stated in the lease is still due regardless of who continues to reside in the unit. For example, two people agree to share a unit and to a 50 percent split of the monthly rental cost. If one roommate moves out prior to the end of the lease, unless the landlord agrees otherwise, the remaining roommate will still have to pay 100 percent of the rent.
If a unit is vacated before the lease ends, the leaseholder(s) is still responsible to pay the rent for the full term (if the lease is definite term) or for the full rental period (if it is a periodic lease). The landlord may allow a new tenant to pick up the balance of the lease (known as a sublease).
The rent must be paid on the date it is due. When a tenant is late in paying rent, the landlord has the legal right to start eviction proceedings. (Click here for an explanation of eviction proceedings.) A tenant cannot be charged a late fee if the rent is paid after the due date, unless the tenant and landlord have agreed in writing that a late fee may be imposed. The written agreement must specify when the late fee will be charged and the late fee cannot exceed eight percent of the overdue rent payment, unless a federal statute, regulation, or handbook provides a different late fee for any tenancy under a federal program.(60)
Raising the Rent
Under a periodic tenancy, a landlord cannot raise the rent unless the landlord gives proper written notice. Proper notice is one rental period plus one day. (Click here for an explanation of proper notice.) During a definite term lease, rent cannot be raised during the term unless the lease allows for an increase.
Tenant’s Right to Privacy
Generally, a landlord may only enter a tenant’s unit for a “reasonable business purpose” after making a good faith effort to give the tenant reasonable notice. (61) If a landlord violates this law, the tenant can take the landlord to court to break the lease, recover the damage deposit, and receive a civil penalty of up to $100 per violation. (62)
Examples of a reasonable business purpose include:
- Showing the unit to prospective tenants.(63)
- Showing the unit to a prospective buyer or insurance agent.(64)
- Performing maintenance work.(65)
- Showing the unit to state, county, or local officials (i.e., fire, housing, health, or building inspectors) inspecting the property.(66)
- Checking on a tenant causing a disturbance within the unit.(67)
- Checking on a tenant the landlord believes is violating the lease.(68)
- Checking to see if a person is staying in the unit who has not signed the lease.(69)
- Checking the unit when a tenant moves out.(70)
- Performing housekeeping work in a senior housing unit. A senior housing unit is a building where 80 percent of the tenants are age 55 or older.(71)
A tenant’s right to prior notice may not be waived in any residential lease.(72) However, the landlord may enter the unit without giving prior notice in the following situations:
- When immediate entry is necessary to prevent injury to persons or property because of conditions relating to maintenance, building security, or law enforcement.(73)
- When immediate entry is necessary to determine a tenant’s safety.(74)
- When immediate entry is necessary to comply with state law or local ordinances.(75)
If a landlord enters without giving prior notice and the tenant is not present, the landlord must give written notice to the tenant.(76) If the landlord violates this law, the tenant may recover up to $100 per violation in court.(77)
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 situation.(78) Any lease provision that limits this right is illegal and void (79) and a tenant may sue a landlord for $250 or actual damages, whichever is greater, and reasonable attorney’s fees for violations of this law. (80) 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. (81)
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.(82)
Minnesota law requires landlords to keep units in reasonable repair. This requirement cannot be waived.(83) However, the landlord and the tenant can agree the tenant will do certain specific repairs or maintenance if:
- This agreement is in writing and conspicuous (easy to notice); and
- The tenant receives something adequate in return (for example, a rent reduction or payment from the landlord for the work).(84)
If the tenant has trouble getting the landlord to make necessary repairs in the unit, the tenant may use one or more of the following remedies:
- 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.
- Place the full rent in escrow with the court, and ask the court to order the landlord to make repairs.
- Sue the landlord in district court under the Tenant’s Remedies Act.
- 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).
- Use the landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs as a defense to either the landlord’s 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 landlord will not correct a repair problem, a state, county, or local department or authority can be called by the tenant. If 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 the corrections, the state, county, or local department or authority has the authority to serve a summons on the landlord to appear in court. (85)
A landlord may not retaliate (strike back) by filing an eviction notice, increasing rent, or decreasing services because a tenant contacts an inspector. (Click here for more information about retaliation.) (86)
Rent Escrow Action
A Rent Escrow Action is a simplified procedure that permits a tenant to seek relief for housing violations on his or her 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.(87) 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: The first step is to either contact the housing inspector or notify the landlord in writing about the violation. As stated earlier, the housing inspector can order the landlord to make repairs if there are violations of the housing code. (88) 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. (89)
Even if there is no local housing code, Minnesota law says landlords must keep rental property fit to live in and in good repair.(90) 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 should 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. (91)
A tenant may file a Rent Escrow Action any time after the required 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. (92)There is a small filing fee, but the administrator can waive the fee if the tenant’s income is very low. (93) 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 provide the tenant with a rent escrow petition form.(94)
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. If fixing the housing code violation will cost more than the conciliation court limit, however, then personal service is required. Someone other than the tenant must give the hearing notice to the landlord.(95) 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. (96)
After the hearing, if the tenant proves that a violation exists, the judge may do any of the following:
- Order the landlord to fix the problem.(97)
- Allow the tenant to make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent.(98)
- Appoint an administrator to collect rent and order repairs.(99)
- Return all, none, or part of the rent to the tenant.(100)
- Order that future rent be paid to the court, that the rent be abated (eliminated or reduced) until repairs are made, or that part of the rent be abated or refunded.(101)
- Fine the landlord.(102)
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.(103)
A tenant must follow the other terms of the lease while paying rent into escrow. 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.(104)
Tenant Remedies Action
In a Tenant Remedies Action, a tenant can sue for the same items as in a Rent Escrow Action:
- A health or housing code violation.(105)
- A violation of the landlord’s obligation to keep the rental unit in reasonable repair.(106)
- A violation of an oral or written rental agreement or lease.(107)
A Tenant Remedies Action, however, has more complicated procedures than a Rent Escrow Action. Some non-profits can bring a Tenant Remedies Action on behalf of a whole building’s tenants.
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:
- Notify the local housing, health, energy, or fire inspector (if there is one).(108)
- 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.(109)
- Wait for the required time to pass, and then, if the repair work has not begun or progressed, bring suit in district court.(110) 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.(111)
Rent Abatement (Return of Money)
Before suing for rent abatement (a return of rent paid for a unit that was in disrepair), 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 pointless, should the tenant try to bring a legal action for rent abatement. The tenant should then be prepared to prove:
- The existence of the condition(s) affecting safety, health, or the fitness of the dwelling as a place to live.(112)
- The landlord was notified, knew, or should have known, about the defective condition(s).(113)
- The landlord failed to repair the defective condition(s), or make adequate repairs, after having a reasonable time to do so.(114)
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:
- 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; or
- 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. (Effective August 1, 2014, claims of up to $15,000 can be decided in conciliation court.)
Tenants may withhold rent if there is a serious repair problem or code violation. Because the tenant may have to defend this action in court, it may be better to use a Rent Escrow Action; however, if the tenant chooses to withhold rent, the tenant should follow these steps:
- Notify the landlord, in writing, of the needed repairs (both parties should keep a copy) and give the landlord a chance to make repairs.(115)
- Notify the housing, health, energy, or fire inspector (if there is one) if the landlord does not make the repairs.(116)
- Get a written copy of the inspector’s report.(117)
- Notify the landlord in writing that all or part of the rent will be withheld until the repairs are made.(118)
If a tenant decides to withhold rent, the tenant should be prepared to defend that action in court. It is very likely that the landlord will begin eviction proceedings. (119) The tenant must not spend the withheld rent money. The tenant must bring the money to court when the tenant is summoned (required) to appear in court. The judge may order the tenant to deposit the rent with the court. Tenants who fail to comply with the judge’s order to deposit rent with the court may not have their defenses heard and can be evicted.
If the court decides the tenant’s argument is valid, it can do any number of things. It may, for instance, order the rent to be deposited with the court until the repairs are made, or it may reduce the rent in an amount equal to the extent of the problem. (120) On the other hand, if the tenant loses, the tenant will have to pay all the rent withheld, plus court costs. In addition, the case will be reported to a tenant screening service, affecting future credit and tenant screening checks. Therefore, withholding rent may create more of a risk to the tenant than a Rent Escrow, Tenant Remedies Action, or a rent abatement action.
A tenant in poorly maintained rental housing can also use the landlord’s failure to make necessary repairs as a defense to:
- The landlord’s Eviction Action based on nonpayment of rent.(121)
- The landlord’s lawsuit for unpaid rent. Again, the tenant should be prepared to show that the landlord was notified, knew, or should have known, about the defective conditions, but failed to repair them despite having a reasonable chance to do so.(122)
A neighborhood organization is an incorporated group in a specific geographical area formed to promote community safety, crime prevention, and housing quality in a nondiscriminatory manner. A neighborhood organization can act on behalf of a tenant with the tenant’s written permission, or it can act on behalf of all tenants in a building with a majority of the tenants’ permission. (123)
In most situations, a neighborhood organization acts much like a tenant. A neighborhood organization can:
- Call for an inspection of a building about which it has zoning concerns.(124)
- Take to court the owner of a building in which a housing violation may exist.(125)
- Take to court the owner of any unoccupied buildings in its area.(126)
If a violation is found to exist, a judge can rule in favor of the tenant(s) and/or the neighborhood organization. Among other options, the court can order the owner to comply with all housing codes, under the court’s jurisdiction, for up to one year. Additionally, the court can rule against the owner of the building for reasonable attorney’s fees, not to exceed $500. (127)
The court may appoint a neighborhood organization as the designated administrator for a building as a result of legal action. When this happens, the administrator may collect rent, contract for materials and services to remedy violations, and perform other duties as outlined by the court. (128)
Uninhabitable or Condemned Buildings
A landlord may not accept rent or a security deposit for residential rental property condemned or declared unfit for human habitation by a state or local authority if the tenancy started after the premises were condemned or declared unfit for human habitation. By violating this law, the landlord is liable to the tenant for actual damages and three times the amount of all money collected from the tenant after the date the property is condemned or declared unfit by state or local officials, plus court costs and attorney’s fees. Actual damages may include items such as moving expenses, temporary lodging and other costs. (129) If a building is condemned, a landlord must return the tenant’s security deposit within five days after the tenant moves from the building, unless the tenant’s willful, malicious or irresponsible conduct caused the condemnation.(130)
Minnesota law states that if a building is destroyed or becomes uninhabitable or unfit to live in through no fault of the tenant, the tenant may vacate the rental unit. In that situation, the tenant is not required to pay further rent to the landlord.(131) If the building has not been condemned, however, a tenant who relies upon this law to break a lease may run the risk that a court will not agree that the building was uninhabitable. The tenant may want to consider using the remedies discussed here rather than to vacate the rental unit without proper notice.