As winter blasts its way into our lives, here at the TRC, our call logs fill up with questions about the cold, and the problems it causes. Here are answers to some of our more frequently asked questions.
- Furnace isn't on yet: Sometimes, landlords only turn the heat on when they get to a certain date in the year (as in, they'll have a turn-on date, no matter what the temperature is outside). This isn't legal - the rooms inside of the house has to be able to maintain at least 67 degrees. To know more about coping with this kind of situation, check out our blog post on heat turn-on/turn-off dates.
- The heat isn't working: this is a repair issue! And it's a serious one. In this kind of situation, we encourage folks to follow our normal repair process, which we outline in our repairs pages (Wisconsin's is here, City of Madison & Fitchburg is here). If you don't get your landlord motivated to make repairs, though, it's probably a good idea to call the building inspector as early on in the process as possible.
- The heat isn't working so my landlord brought me heaters. Landlords are supposed to disclose utility information before a tenant moves into a rental unit. If adding electric heaters significantly changes a utility bill, a tenant could ask the landlord to cover the difference in utility cost, because of that lack of disclosure before the tenant moved into the unit (more about disclosures here - scroll down to "utility disclosure information"). A good way to handle this dilemma would be: ask the utility company for help in finding the difference in the amount owed for the days that the portable heaters were used, and write the landlord a letter seeking compensation for that amount. At that point, the tenant could either sue the landlord for the amount that needs to be paid, or file a complaint with Consumer Protection. (Don't withhold your rent! It's such a terrible idea!)
- Energy bills: a quick post on weatherproofing your rental. Many energy companies have ways to help tenants lower their bills, and many building inspectors will cite landlords for excessively drafty windows and doors. Also, there's a moratorium on utility shut-off from Nov. 1-April 15 in Wisconsin. This means that if tenants are up to date on their bills, starting/after Nov. 1, that heat can't get shut off by the utility company until April 15. Tenants, of course, can get evicted for nonpayment of utilities, if the lease allows that, so it still may be an issue. In Dane County, our suggestion for energy payment assistance is in this brochure.
Snow and Ice Problems:
- Who is responsible for shoveling snow? If the tenant is responsible for shoveling the sidewalks and clearing the ice, this should be in the lease. It isn't always, though. If the tenant also leases the grounds (not just the interior of the rental unit), and has "exclusive possession" of the yard/sidewalk/exterior, then the tenant is probably responsible for the snow removal. If the tenant is responsible for mowing the lawn, and nothing is said in the lease about shoveling snow, then it's likely that the tenant is also responsible for shoveling snow and removing ice. If it's an apartment building, and there are common spaces, and the lease doesn't say anything about shoveling snow, then it's likely that the tenant is not responsible for shoveling snow or removing ice. Here's a post on what tenants and landlords can do if there is difficulty getting the other party to shovel the sidewalk.
- Snow and Ice laws about public sidewalks: Municipalities are the ones to regulate how much snow and ice is allowed on the public sidewalks, and they also deal with enforcement when those sidewalks are not sufficiently shoveled/de-iced. Most municipalities require that the snow be cleared within 24 hours of falling, and that sand be dispersed to prevent slipping. Here are websites for some Wisconsin cities: Madison's ordinance, Madison's city complaint form, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Janesville, La Crosse. If you need more information, or for a town that's not listed, your best bet is to find information on a local government website, or call a local government office.
- Private or public sidewalk negligence: if someone slips and falls on a public or private sidewalk, that person is likely to want the landlord to pay for their negligence. However! Negligence is really hard to prove unless the person can show that the landlord knew about the problem and failed to take action on it, so a paper trail is crucial. More about negligence on this blog post.
- Sidewalk clearing for folks that have disabilities. If a tenant is supposed to clear their own sidewalk, and they can't because of their disability, they can request a reasonable accommodation for that disability. That tenant might have to pay for that accommodation, but it would help relieve them of liability. Also, the tenant could seek help from their city - Milwaukee has a phone number on their city page above, and Madison says here to call the building inspector to get paired up with an agency that can help. If that disabled person is worried about falling on a sidewalk where the landlord has control, it's back to that negligence issue, above.
- Driveways and parking lots: Driveways and parking lots are tricky! Some landlords are really proactive about getting the lots plowed (and then tenants are frustrated if they are ticketed or towed from the lot - info about what's allowed for car ticketing and towing here). However, we more frequently get calls about how frustrated tenants are that a lot hasn't been cleared. It's rare that any government authority is likely to take action on that - according to a Madison building inspector, parking lots are incredibly difficult to take action on, because of how the snow gets impacted so immediately and then turns into ice. If you are a tenant frustrated about the state of a parking lot, and your lease says something about how that's supposed to happen, great! Write to the landlord about that. However, if your lease is silent and you're feeling concerned, then your best bet is the negligence route above: warn the landlord in writing about your safety concerns, and then, if necessary, hold them financially responsible.
- Pests: cold weather makes the animals and pests come inside! That's a repair issue (yuck). The repair page for Wisconsin is here, City of Madison & Fitchburg is here. Building inspectors report that mice and rodents are the hardest to deal with. Mice tend to hide very well, and building inspectors need to see evidence of the pests in order to take action. So, discovering where they are entering the building is a good start, and can help track the rodents down.
- Smoking: When it's cold outside, oftentimes smokers will start smoking inside. If tenants know they have issues with smoke and are concerned about their neighbors, they need to document that in advance if possible (and even better, go the reasonable accommodations route). If a tenant is dealing with an eviction notice for having smoked inside, then follow regular eviction steps (their lease needs to say that smoking is not allowed, and a landlord has to be able to prove it, which is super tricky). Smoking is not allowed in public areas in Dane County (more info here) but for private residences, landlords can set their own rules.
- Winter Eviction Myths: there's a long-time myth circulating which says that landlords are not allowed to evict during the winter. This is simply not true. In fact, in Wisconsin, courts are not allowed to restrict evictions during the winter. Law is here.
- Winter You-Can't-Leave Myths: the other side of that myth coin is that landlords sometimes tell tenants, is that tenants are not allowed to end their lease during the winter. This isn't true - tenants always have the right to break their lease (more info on that in our Ending Your Lease page). However! There's more to it than just that. If your lease has a you-can't-leave-during-the-winter clause, check out this page and see if it helps.
* Hi! You know by now that we are not attorneys here at the TRC, right? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.