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Renter Mentor: No Heat, No Power…Now What?

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Every year, various parts of the country are hit with big storms, be they tornadoes, hurricanes or blizzards. Last October, the East Coast was hit by one of the worst storms in U.S. history: Sandy. According to the Huffington Post, Sandy was the second-costliest storm, and at its peak, more than 7.9 million people were without power across the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, according to CBS News.

And as if that wasn’t enough, shortly thereafter, the Northeast was blasted by even more winter weather. According to Weather.com, feet of fresh snow plus freezing temperatures impeded relief and repair efforts and left hundreds of thousands of people without power and heat for weeks. Those who weren’t evacuated or couldn’t make it to a shelter shut themselves in their homes, clad in layers of clothes and huddled under heaps of blankets. Facing a major power outage can be a difficult situation, especially for renters.

Though no landlord is to blame when the power grid fails due to acts of nature, when tenants aren’t provided with the essentials utilities, the question arises: Who’s responsible for paying for the damage? Should tenants have to pay full rent in the event they’re without power and heat for an extended period of time? What exactly are their rights in this situation, what options do they have and what actions should they try to avoid?

Tenants’ Rights

According to the New York State Office of the Attorney General, “Failure to provide electric power or heat constitutes a breach of the landlord’s legal obligation under the warranty of habitability. Such tenant may be entitled to a reduction in rent for the period when the services were not provided.” This holds true in most states, but will vary per situation. Loss of heat that lasts only a couple of hours and involves no structural damage to the rental unit will most likely not result in legal issues raised by tenants. It’s essential to evaluate the need for reimbursement or other compensation, as needless actions can compromise tenant-landlord relationships, as well as prove to be costly but futile undertakings.In some cases, this can simply be done by tenants in conjunction with their landlord. If that’s not possible, it may be wise to consult your state’s landlord and tenant laws, contact your state’s attorney general, the state housing department, or seek legal advice.

What Not to Do

If a loss of power and heat lasts for a period of time that adds up to more than an inconvenience, it’s imperative to avoid drastic action without first trying to resolve the situation amicably or, if that’s not an option, through official channels. Tenants who simply withhold rent or move out without officially notifying their landlords risk eviction proceedings and losing their case in court.

Options

In the event tenants are seriously inconvenienced, they have a number of options:

  • Renters insurance. Tenants who have renters insurance may be able to recover the costs of temporary accommodation in hotels for the duration of a power outage—but in most cases, only if the power outage is accompanied by structural damages that render their units uninhabitable. Because policies and coverage differ, tenants should contact their insurers to find out what is covered by their policy.
  • Rent abatement. Seeing as most state landlord laws provide that the premises of rental units should be inhabitable, anything that renders them uninhabitable—such as loss of power or heat—constitutes grounds for rent abatement for a portion of, or the entire period of time that services weren’t provided. But of course, check your state’s laws and they can vary. Many landlords will approach their tenants with an abatement offer, which can be negotiated in the event a tenant doesn’t agree. In the worst-case scenario that either a landlord fails to offer abatement or cannot reach a satisfactory agreement with a tenant, the parties may pursue the dispute through legal channels.
  • Reimbursement. If residential units become uninhabitable due to structural damage and tenants are forced to seek temporary accommodation elsewhere, landlords may be responsible for the accrued costs and may be required to reimburse their tenants.If a rental property becomes uninhabitable due to a covered loss, certain types of landlord insurance should cover qualified costs. In the event tenants have renters insurance that covers these costs, they should contact their insurers to determine coverage.
  • Break the lease. In many states, tenants may break their lease in the event they’ve been “constructively evicted”—prohibited from returning to their homes because structural damages renders them permanently unlivable. Tenants who find themselves in such unfortunate circumstances should always give written notice, preferably by registered mail, and return their units’ keys. A word of caution: It pays to have a professional, such as a local housing inspector, evaluate the situation before simply leaving.

Tenants often have more rights and resources than they might think when a power outage knocks out their heat, but they should act with caution. Housing disputes can be unpleasant and drawn out, and it’s always best to resolve situations amicably when possible.