Legal Learning: Rent escrow helps tenants with problem landlords
You moved in to your new apartment Jan. 1. The plumbing was bad when you moved in. You told your landlord in writing about the bad plumbing right away. The roof has leaked since March, and you told the landlord in writing as soon as it started to leak. Nothing has been fixed yet.
In Minnesota, you have a solution: it's called rent escrow. You pay your rent to the court administrator, along with a rent escrow affidavit and a copy of your letters to the landlord. You can ask the judge to order repairs, reduce your rent until the repairs are done, give you back rent money for the months you lived there with the repair problems or let you get the repairs made and deduct the cost from your rent.
A tenant has the right to live in a home that is in reasonable repair, and the landlord has the responsibility to make sure your home is fit to live in. Most landlords will repair the problem; the law says they have 14 days to do so. If they don't, you can start the rent escrow action.
The court administrator will set a hearing for you in 10-14 days. You can bring photos to the hearing to show the judge the problems, and can also bring other witnesses, like a neighbor who has seen the repair problems.
In Duluth, there is a housing inspector who can be asked to come to the premises. If a code violation is found, the Inspector will give the landlord a deadline by which to make repairs. If the deadline has passed without the repairs being completed, the tenant can file a rent escrow action.
There is a filing fee to file a rent escrow action in court, but as in all cases, this fee may be waived. If you have a low income, fill out a court fee waiver form to ask the court to let you skip paying the fee. Bring proof of your low income, like pay stubs or proof of government assistance.
There is a whole chapter of Minnesota Statutes (504B) that set out tenants' rights. For example, the landlord must "make the premises reasonably energy efficient by installing weatherstripping, caulking, storm windows and storm doors."
A landlord can't evict a tenant for calling the police to report domestic abuse, but the abused tenant can terminate the lease without penalty if there is fear of imminent violence. A landlord can enter the premises only for a reasonable business purpose, after giving reasonable notice to the tenant.
There is a lot more information about tenants' rights at lawhelpmn.org, including the rent escrow form. Forms are also available at MNCourts.gov/forms. Or, you can contact Legal Aid in Duluth at 218-623-8100.
If you hire an attorney to help you, the judge can order the landlord to pay your attorney fees.
There is a great deal of legal protection for tenants in Minnesota, but many tenants are not aware of their rights.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.