Can my landlord cut the air conditioning to offset rising costs?

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Question:

I live in an apartment building with central air conditioning and heat. The landlord is freaking out about his rising utility bill, gas and electric. He says he may cut the air conditioning this summer -- which means I'll bake. Can he just turn off the switch like this?

Answer:

You probably can't stop your landlord before he gets to the master switch, unless you want to engage in a B-movie style tug-of-war. But if you've got a lease, especially one that's not going to end soon, the forces of justice are on your side.

A lease would let you argue that the landlord cannot decrease any agreed-to services until the lease is over. Look at it this way: Your rent pays for the use of the unit and any other major amenities that were present when you moved in. If the landlord withdraws the air conditioning, which is major in anyone's book, he's in violation of the lease.

So where does that get you? Legally, the landlord's violation would allow you to move out without being on the hook for further rent. If you want an opportunity to take off, here it is.

And if you want to stay? You could go to small claims court and ask the judge to order the landlord to flip that switch back in the right direction. Whether a judge will do this, however, is uncertain -- many small claims court judges don't want to issue orders that they, unlike regular trial court judges, don't have the power to enforce. Instead, the judge may order the landlord to reduce the rent to a figure that reflects the value of your easy-bake, air condition-less apartment. Dare we say it -- cold comfort to you.

Now, what if you're in a month-to-month tenancy? Here the landlord has more leeway. As long as he gives proper notice (30 to 60 days in most states), he is free to change the terms of the tenancy, including withdrawing the air conditioning. Your only recourse would be to give your own notice and move out.

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