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Powerless no more: Tenants could gain rights in utility disputes

The U.S. has a Bill of Rights. But tenants can feel they have no rights when it comes to paying their utility bills.

“When tenants in buildings are direct customers of our state’s utility companies, they all have consumer protections,” Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul) told the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday. “But when tenants live in buildings in which the utility service comes from the building and is passed through by the housing provider, they have none of these protections.

“In passing through utility services to tenants and performing these utility functions, housing providers and third-party billers have all the privileges and benefits of regulated utilities, but none of the obligations and responsibilities.”

So Hollins is sponsoring HF4558, which would provide protections for renters who receive utility billing through a landlord or third-party rebilling company, and provide renters with recourse for disputes. And it would allow landlords to charge tenants for administrative costs associated with rebilling.

Following committee approval, the bill was sent to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

“Tenants in directly metered buildings have the right to payment agreements if they fall behind,” Hollins said. “They’re protected from shutoff in the winter, and if they are overcharged. And they have the ability to go to the Public Utilities Commission if they can’t resolve a dispute with their utility company.

“Tenants in shared-meter buildings use the same electrons, therms and gallons, but have none of those rights or protections. This bill places tenants in shared-meter buildings on the same footing as tenants in directly metered buildings.”

“The problems have been pretty serious,” said Ron Elwood, supervising attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “Illegal reselling of service, disconnection of utility service, not by a utility but by a housing provider, which should never happen. Upcharging on rates, and we could go on and on.”

Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) asked what the proposed changes would cost the landowner or renter.

“The cost would virtually be no different from what it is today,” Elwood replied. “Submetering, which goes on today, would continue to go on. Apportionment that goes on today for water and gas would continue to go on, but just through a statutory formula that we’re working on, which will be in the final bill.”

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