It is illegal for the landlord to shutoff a tenant’s utilities intentionally for any other reason than to temporarily make necessary repairs (RCW 59.18.300). The tenant may recover up to $100 a day or portion of day they are without utilities and actual damages in Small Claims Court. Written documentation of the situation is extremely important.
If you do not consistently pay utility bills, you run the risk of having your utilities shut off. Units that do not have utilities are condemnable under emergency order of the city or county in which your unit is located. There are currently no protections in state law against utility shutoffs for renters with disabilities or small children, but it’s possible that individual utility providers provide some such protection or that it is covered under the Federal Fair Housing Act. Contact your utility provider directly to find out more information. They may be willing to delay shut offs for tenants who have good payment histories. In addition, low-income tenants have some protections against shutoffs of heat during the winter months. See the “Washington Law Help”: http://www.walawhelp.org publication Public Utilities for more information.
There are some utility assistance programs that may be able to help with energy costs. For energy assistance, see Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or call the Community Information Line at 206-461-3200 or 800-621-4636 or 2-1-1 from a landline.
Sometimes landlords have utility bills in their name, passing the costs on to the tenant. If your utilities are being shut off because your landlord is delinquent on the bill or bills, you have the right to have the utilities turned back on if you put the bill in your name. State and federal laws prevent a utility company from denying services to a tenant because of an unpaid utility bill owed by the landlord (or former property owner, or former tenant). A public utility company must allow a tenant to put the utilities in his or her name if the tenant agrees to pay the utility bill going forward.
State law requires a public electric, light or water company to offer services to a tenant “on the same terms and conditions as other residential utility customers, without requiring that he or she pay delinquent amounts for services billed directly to the property owner or a previous tenant.” RCW 35.21.217(5). The United States Constitution also prevents a utility company from refusing to turn on the power or water if the tenant is willing to pay the bill on a going-forward basis because it’s unfair and unreasonable. See a sample letter (Request to Have Utilities Put in Tenants Name When Landlord is Behind on Bills) that you may send to a utility company that is refusing to put utilities in your name, or requiring you to pay a back bill of a third party.
You may be able to try and communicate with the utility company directly to try and get the utility switched back on, even temporarily. However, utility companies often do not agree to talk with the tenant if they are not the primary account holder. RCW 59.18.060 requires that landlords keep utilities on and keep the unit in compliance with building codes. RCW 59.18.070 requires that landlords begin repairs (including utility shutoffs) within 24 hours of receiving written notice from the tenant. If the utility shutoff is due to your landlord’s negligence, keep thorough documentation of your repair request and the landlord’s response (or lack thereof). For more details and more information about your options under the law, see Repairs. Units without functional utilities may be condemned by local code enforcement. Tenants may be entitled to emergency relocation assistance payments if the unit is shut down because of the landlord’s negligence, though it can be difficult to collect the money. See Relocation Assistance for more information.
The landlord being behind on utility bills could also be a sign that your landlord is in foreclosure. If they are unable to afford the utilities it is likely they are unable to afford the mortgage on the home. See Foreclosure for more information.
Tenants Union Tenant Counselors are not attorneys, and this information should not be considered legal advice. Please read our full Tenant Union Disclaimer.