Recent news that weather prognosticator Punxsutawney Phil came out of his tree stump to tell us we’re in for six more weeks of winter brought a collective groan from those of us looking forward to warmer days. The frosty weather, combined with Covid isolation, has kept us cooped up inside our houses for what feels like an eternity.
But what if your home provides no relief from the chill?
Throughout the Maryland and D.C. area, renters in apartments with inadequate heat start their day with a brutal reminder that winter is still very much upon us. Many times, it’s just as cold inside the apartment as it is outside. With enforcement infrequent or even non-existent, renters are left to fend for themselves in coming up with ways to keep themselves and their families warm. These creative but often dangerous methods include:
- Permanent use of space heaters that are designed to be temporary solutions
- Sealing off windows with tape and plastic
- Leaving running ovens open and boiling pots of water on stoves
This quest for a little basic, simple warmth can lead to disastrous occurrences. In January, a malfunctioning electrical heater in a New York City apartment started a fire that killed 17 people, including eight children. Even space heaters that work properly pose a risk: placing one fewer than three feet from a couch, bed or other combustible can cause a fire. Space heaters should never be plugged into an extension cord or power strip, which could overheat and result in a fire. Plug them directly into wall outlets and be sure not to plug any other electrical devices into the same outlet as the heater. Additionally, residents who leave their ovens open to heat their house or apartment expose themselves to carbon monoxide poisoning, especially if they’ve also sealed off their windows.
Know your rights as a Maryland renter
As a renter, you’re entitled to an adequately heated apartment or house. Baltimore County Code § 35-4-202 mandates that “Between October 15 and April 15, inclusive, of each year, the owner of every building containing one, two, or three rental dwelling units must comply with the following:”
- When the outdoor temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, the landlord/owner must, if the heating is not under the individual control of the tenant, provide adequate heating to maintain a temperature of at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit in all rooms – as measured from the center of the rooms at a height of 3 feet above the floor.
- When the outdoor temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, the landlord/owner must, if the heating is under the individual control of the tenant, provide equipment in working order that is capable of maintaining a temperature of at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit in all rooms – as measured from the center of the rooms at a height of 3 feet above the floor.
What can you do if these conditions aren’t met?
Stop paying rent or terminate your rental agreement
If your landlord isn’t meeting the minimum requirements above, the fastest way to get his/her attention is to withhold your rent payments or terminate your lease. In some cases, this may require you to take your landlord to court, but the threat of such an expensive hassle might be enough to compel your landlord to provide adequate heating. Also, threatening to move means that your landlord is going to have to spend time and money to find a new tenant, during which time the apartment sits empty earning no income. Your landlord might decide it’s in his/her best interest to keep you happy and in place by simply doing what’s required.
Make the fixes yourself and bill your landlord
In the event your landlord is legally required to provide heat yet fails to do so because of faulty equipment, you can make any necessary repairs yourself or have a professional do it and deduct the cost from your rent. However, not paying rent can lead to legal trouble, so make sure to inform your landlord of the problem in writing, propose a reasonable time limit for him/her to address the issue, and provide notification that you will pay for the repairs yourself and deduct the total spent from your rent.
Notify Baltimore County of any heating violations by your landlord
Finally, in the event the landlord/owner continues to fail to meet the minimum heating mandates, you can ask the police to make a report. You will be provided with a copy of the report, which you can then present to a District Court Commissioner to request charging the landlord with a criminal violation of the Code.
If the Commissioner finds probable cause that your landlord isn’t following the law, the Commissioner will issue a statement of charges against the landlord and set a trial date, usually within two weeks of the date of your complaint. Even if the landlord restores the service before the trial date, the trial will take place.
Once the landlord/owner is officially notified of the violations, he/she is typically given a set amount of time within which the situation must be remedied. If the landlord fails to correct the problem within that time, you may use any remedy or defense provided by the County Rent Escrow Law. This law allows you to pay your rent directly to the court so that those funds may be used to pay for the necessary repairs.
At this time, the landlord/owner may be assessed the following penalties:
- $250.00 for the first violation and failure to comply
- $500.00 for the second violation and failure to comply
- $1,000.00 for any further violation and failure to comply
If you’re a renter living without heat, an experienced lawyer can help you determine which course of action is best for you. Contact the Law Offices of Nicholas Parr in Baltimore, MD today to schedule your free consultation. We don’t receive a fee unless we win.