Springtime Heat Concerns

Can we say it? Is it spring yet? Or do we still have to whisper so spring doesn't get shy because we're all talking about it?  With spring seemingly on its way, many of us across Wisconsin are experiencing the confusing weather changes. It's warm! It's snowing! It's hot! It's raining!  Sometimes within the span of the day.  

Among us, there are optimists ("it's fine to turn off the heat! It's already a hundred degrees warmer than it was this winter!"), and there are pessimists ("you call this warm?? I'm from Texas!"), but there are still tenant-landlord laws that come into play when we're discussing when it's okay to turn off the heat.

Here at the TRC, we got a call from a tenant this morning, who was downright chilly.  Where she's living, the apartment isn't too well insulated, and the nights are still pretty cold.  But the landlord has decided to turn off the heating system ("it's spring!"), and so, there's no warmth to be had.

This can be a difficult thing for tenants, but also have serious side effects for landlords.  With the temperatures unexpectedly dabbling in the territory of freezing, pipes can freeze and burst.  For tenants, who have already struggled through this tough winter (with scarcity of heating oil and boilers that have never in their lives worked as hard as this winter), being even colder during the spring months can really cause major problems.  

When we look at the laws that deal with this, we start with ATCP 134.04(2)(b)2.  This law says that before a tenant moves in, or before a landlord accepts any money from a tenant, that landlord has to disclose if the heat is not capable of maintaining at least 67°F in all living areas of the apartment, year round (technically: "during all seasons of the year in which the dwelling unit may be occupied"). So, if a landlord hasn't told a tenant that they are not capable of maintaining the heat, then the tenant can assume that they will be living in a space that is at least 67°F or warmer.*

On top of ATCP 134.04(2)(b)2, there's Wis. Stat. 704.07(2)(a)2, which says that it's the landlord's duty to maintain and repair "all equipment under the landlord's control necessary to supply services that the landlord has expressly or impliedly agreed to furnish to the tenant, such as heat..."  Which means that the landlord, under the law, probably needs to keep the boiler turned on, until the temperature outside is always 67°F or higher.

What does this mean for landlords? Keeping the heat on can be a problem for landlords, who face further heating costs during a winter that has been pretty brutal.  The unit still needs to be protected, though, as do the tenants inside.  For help paying those utility costs, or weatherizing the rental unit, landlords can contact your local utility company - they often know of programs in your area that are useful to homeowners.  Here in the Dane County area, we have Project Home, which helps low-income tenants make their homes more efficient, especially in the cold weather.

What does this mean for tenants? It can be pretty tough to come out of a difficult winter, and face a chillier spring inside your rental home. According to the laws, heat is a "repair" issue, so we recommend following the steps we outline on our Repairs page.  These steps include: writing a letter, calling the building inspector, making a complaint to DATCP, or suing in small claims court.


* To be clear, if the lease says that the tenant has to pay for heating bills, then the tenant has to pay for heat. Wisconsin has a moratorium on turning off heat from November 1 - April 15, but if the tenant doesn't pay their heating bill, then it's not the landlord's responsibility to get that heat turned back on.  It is the landlord's responsibility to make sure it's possible to have heat that is at least 67°F.