Some landlords try to lower their expenses, and even when they are obligated to provide heat – they may try to keep the temperature below the law required minimum. Some simply stop paying the utility company. So what happens if your landlord does not pay the utility bill, and your heat is at risk of being shut-off, or not delivered as in the case of oil?
If the landlord has not paid a gas heating bill, the gas company will send out a shut-off notice. Since the landlord’s billing address may be different than the address where the service is provided, the gas company usually also sends a copy of the shut-off notice to the property address itself. This second notice is sent in order to notify any tenant living there that a shut-off of service is about to happen. Upon receiving this shut-off notice, the tenant usually calls the landlord. The typical response from the landlord is that he or she will “take care of it.” Unfortunately, some landlords “take care of it” while others don’t. For those tenants with a landlord who does not “take care of it,” a shut-off of service or loss of heat usually occurs.
If you find yourself in this situation, immediately contact the landlord and demand for service to be restored. If the landlord is not compliant, you can contact the Department of Health and the Housing Inspector, or you can withhold some of your rent and use it to pay for your heat. If your landlord threatens you with an eviction, keep in mind that the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1, provides that a tenant may be evicted for nonpayment of rent, “provide that, for the purposes of this section, any portion of rent unpaid by a tenant to a landlord but utilized by the tenant to continue utility service to the rental premises after receiving notice from an electric, gas, water or sewer public utility that such service was in danger of discontinuance based on nonpayment by the landlord, shall not be deemed to be unpaid rent.”
A tenant faced with a utility shut-off because the landlord did not pay the bill he or she is responsible for, can use the rent money to pay the landlord’s bill and get the heat back on. As long as the tenant gets a receipt from the company showing the tenant paid the landlord’s bill for service to the rental property and has the shut-off notice, the tenant will have a defense if the landlord tries to claim the tenant did not pay rent. However, as added protection the tenant should keep the original receipt and send a copy of it to the landlord as proof that the money was paid directly to the heating company. If not all the rent had to be used to pay the bill, the rest of the rent should be paid to the landlord along with the copy of the receipt. Remember, it must be the landlord’s responsibility to pay for the heat under the lease in order for you to use this option, and before you use your rent money to pay for heat try to talk to the landlord first.