Utility Billing and Termination in the Landlord/Tenant Context

MRSC frequently receives questions regarding the responsibilities of city utilities, particularly water, where the utility service is provided to a tenant. Here are some general considerations and some specific requirements that apply in this context that a city utility should be aware of to ensure compliance with state law and to respect the rights of both landlord and tenant:

  • The landlord/property owner is ultimately responsible for utility charges, even if the utility account is in the tenant’s name. The utility liens that a city has for utility service charges are imposed on the property (“against the premises”) to which the utility service is provided.  See RCW 35.21.290 (water and electricity); RCW 35.67.200 (sewer). We recommend that a city identify in its utility ordinances that, when the utility service is in the tenant’s name, the property owner/landlord is ultimately responsible for the utility charges (in case the tenant leaves without resolving unpaid charges).  A city does, however, have the option of pursuing collection of delinquent charges from the tenant, if the account is or was in the tenant’s name.
  • Both the city and the landlord have responsibilities regarding utility service provided to a tenant. These responsibilities are set out in RCW 35.21.217 and are summarized as follows:
    • When utility account is in the tenant’s name, the city may, at the option of the city, notify the landlord of a tenant’s delinquency, or must do so when requested by the landlord in writing. Compliance with notification when requested by the landlord is essential to protecting the city’s full rights of collection; when the city provides notice upon landlord’s request, the city cannot collect from the landlord delinquent charges for electric light and power more than four months past due.
    • When the city fails to notify the landlord of a tenant’s delinquency after receiving a written request to do so, the city has, with respect to electric light and power charges, no lien against the premises and cannot collect unpaid charges from the landlord.
    • A landlord has the responsibility to notify the city in writing within 14 days of the termination of the rental agreement and vacation of the premises; failure of the landlord to do so means that the city is not limited to collecting electric light and power charges only up to four months past due.
    • The city must make a good faith and reasonable effort to provide written notice to the service address of pending disconnection of electric power and light or water service for nonpayment at least seven calendar days prior to disconnection when a tenant resides at the service address, a multi-unit residential premises receives utility service through a single utility account, or a utility account’s billing address is not the same as the service address of a residential rental property:
      • If requested, the city must put the account in the tenant’s name, without making the tenant responsible for the landlord’s delinquency – “except as otherwise allowed by law” and only where the city offers the tenant the opportunity to set up a reasonable payment plan for the delinquent amounts;
      • Compliance with landlord notification requirements preserves the city’s right to collect from the landlord and/or the previous tenant or both any delinquent amounts due for service previously provided to the service address.

(Be sure to read RCW 35.21.217 closely; the above is merely a summary of its main requirements. These requirements are also well summarized in a 2010 Association of Washington Cities fact sheet titled “New Utility Service Collections Rules.”)

  • If the account is in the landlord’s name, the landlord requests termination of service, the city is aware of a tenant residing at the service address, and the landlord has not notified the city of termination of the rental agreement and vacation of the premises, we recommend the following:
    • Have the landlord sign a written request to have the service terminated and that includes a clause holding the city harmless for any claims resulting from termination of service. Note, and perhaps note to the landlord, that RCW 59.18.300 makes it unlawful for a landlord “to intentionally cause termination of any of his tenant’s utility services.”
    • Provide notice to the tenant of the landlord’s request for termination and give the tenant some time (a week?) before terminating service.
  • A city cannot refuse to provide water service to a new tenant based on a prior tenant’s unpaid water bill.  That is what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held in O’Neal v. Seattle, 66 F.3d 1064 (1995).

Because of the complexities involved in the landlord/tenant context, we recommend that a city establish written policies that set out clear rules on how to deal with the above issues.  Having such policies for staff to follow can avoid headaches for all involved – the city, landlords, and tenants.  And the MRSC staff is, of course, available to assist you in dealing with these issues.

About Bob Meinig

Bob has written extensively on the state Open Public Meetings Act and on municipal incorporation and annexation. At MRSC, he has also advised local governments for over 24 years on diverse legal issues.
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