Minn. landlord-tenant law: the implied covenant of habitability

Minnesotans were shocked and saddened by the Valentine's Day 2014 fire in an upstairs North Minneapolis duplex that killed five young children. Still reeling from the death of his young wife, the 60-year-old father heroically tried to save his kids, but was only able to remove two of them.

According to the March 9, 2014, Star Tribune, the official investigation continues, but the tenant has reportedly claimed he had to use a space heater and the oven to heat the unit because the heating system was in disrepair. The landlord disputes the assertions of the tenant.

While all the facts are not yet clear in this case, the fire has sparked renewed local discussion about landlord-tenant law and what legal duties Minnesota landlords have to keep rental units warm, safe and in good repair.

The implied covenant of habitability

Minnesota statute provides that every residential lease in the state has an implied covenant of habitability - meaning basically that when a landlord rents residential premises under either a written or an oral lease, no matter what the lease says, the law reads into the lease that the landlord has the legal duty to keep the rented home or apartment in habitable condition.

The scope of the landlord's duty of habitability:

  • The residential area of the premises as well as the parts of the property used jointly by all tenants ("common areas") must be kept "fit for the use intended by the parties."
  • The premises must be kept in "reasonable repair," unless "disrepair has been caused by the willful, malicious, or irresponsible conduct of the tenant."
  • The landlord must make specified physical repairs and upgrades related to reasonable energy efficiency.
  • The landlord must comply with relevant state and local "health and safety laws," unless violation was "caused by the willful, malicious, or irresponsible conduct of the tenant."

Some other important provisions of this Minnesota statute:

  • The parties to a residential lease cannot validly agree to waive or modify the habitability requirements.
  • The landlord and tenant may enter into a valid, written agreement that the tenant will do certain repairs or maintenance in exchange for something of value (called "consideration"), but such an agreement does not waive the landlord's duty of habitability of the common areas.
  • The covenant of habitability must be liberally construed, meaning interpreted broadly to apply the duty to all situations it is meant to cover as a health and safety provision.
  • Just because a tenant inspected or had the right to inspect premises before renting them does not affect the landlord's duty to maintain habitable premises.

Landlords and tenants should seek legal advice

Minnesota landlord-tenant law is complicated and anyone affected by it should seek the guidance and representation of an experienced real estate attorney with experience in this area of Minnesota law. Landlords may need advice about how to comply with the duty of habitability in residential premises, while renters may need advice about how to proceed when a landlord is unresponsive to requests for repair and maintenance without which basic standards of livability are not met, even possibly causing dangerous conditions.

Both landlords and tenants may have legal rights, including the right to file lawsuits, surrounding rent payment, eviction and similar issues when habitability is an issue, so legal counsel can be important.