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A Tenant's Guide to Getting and Keeping Gas and Electricity Service

TenantNet note: This booklet was published by Brooklyn Legal Services in 1995. Some information contained may be out-of-date, particularly listed telephone numbers. As far as we know, there have been no updates to this publication. While much of the information may still be valid, the reader should exercise caution.

V. When A Utility Company Can Terminate Service To An Entire Building

If you live in a building with two or more apartments and one meter measures utility service to the common areas or to the heating or hot water systems of the building, your landlord is responsible for providing and paying for that utility service.

If you live in a building with only two apartments, you must notify the utility company about the size of your building if you want the protections described below to apply to you.

Most often, termination of utility service to a building will occur because of the landlord's failure to pay the utility bills. Even though building-wide utility service is your landlord's responsibility, there are steps you may take to prevent shut-off.

A. Notice you should receive prior to termination

Before the utility company can shut off utility service to the entire building, it must notify the owner, superintendent and tenants, in writing, that it intends to do so. The termination notice must be sent to tenants and posted in the public areas of the building at least 15 days before the termination date. See sample Termination Notice, at page 46-I.

During the winter period from November 1 until April 15, termination notices must be sent at least 30 days before the proposed termination date if heat-related service is being terminated.

If the notice was not properly served, the utility should agree to delay termination or restore service while a new notice is properly served.

B. What you can do to prevent or delay termination

If you receive a termination notice for building-wide utility service, call the utility company immediately at the telephone number listed on the notice. The utility company can tell you how much your landlord owes. You may also want to call your landlord to determine if he Or she will pay the bill.

You can prevent the shut-off of the building-wide utility service by paying the landlord's current utility charges and deducting those payments from your rent. You do not have to pay the entire amount of the arrears. Generally, current utility charges are for the prior two months of service.

You can pay the current charges yourself or in cooperation with other tenants in the building. The current charges can be paid at the local utility company office located at the address listed on the notice of termination. You will need a copy of your lease or other proof, such as mail sent to you at your home address, that you are a tenant in the building. If you have an individual account with the utility company or telephone company, you should bring a copy of these bills as further evidence of where you live.

After you pay the current charges and the termination is stopped, the utility company will add your name and address to your landlord's account. You will then receive future notice of any unpaid bills, giving you the opportunity to prevent termination by paying current charges. This does not mean that you are liable for your landlord's future utility bills -- the account remains in your landlord's name.

You may deduct any payments you make for building-wide utility service. Make sure to keep a copy of the receipts or cancelled checks for all payments you make to the utility company. The receipts will be important if your landlord sues you for non-payment of rent, since you will need to prove how much money you have spent paying the landlord's utility bills.

Some utility company representatives think that you and the other tenants must form a tenants' association before you can pay the landlord's utility bills. Many company representatives also believe that you have to assume full responsibility for the future bills to stop the shut-off. Neither belief is true: you may pay the entire building's current charges yourself, and your landlord alone is legally liable for building-wide utility bills. Don't let a utility company representative discourage you from making a payment; you are not assuming responsibility for future utility bills.

The utility representative may suggest that you should switch the landlord's account into your name to prevent termination of building-wide utility service. DO NOT DO THIS. If you do, you will have to make a deposit with the utility company and you will become liable for all future utility bills. The charges may be very high, particularly in large buildings.

For example: On December 30, 1994, Ms. Green had no heat or hot water. She called Brooklyn Union to find out what had happened and was told that her service was shut-off because the landlord had not paid the bills in several months. Ms. Green had not seen her landlord in three months. Ms. Green agreed to pay only "the current charges" due on the bill in order to get gas service turned back on. She paid the current charges which were November and December bills. Her name was added to the landlord's account so she could receive all future notices but she was not responsible for the account. She deducted the money she paid to Brooklyn Union from her future rent payments.

If you are unable to reach an agreement with the utility company to avoid the shut-off of building-wide utility service, contact the Public Service Commission ("PSC"). The PSC will attempt to work out an agreement to avoid the shut-off of service and, if 25% of the tenants in your building sign a request, the PSC will arrange a meeting with the tenants, the utility company and the landlord. The PSC may delay the shut-off if they believe that good faith efforts are being made by the tenants to arrange for payment of current bills.

1. Heat-related service in winter

A utility company planning to shut off heat-related service to a building of three apartments or more during the winter (between November 1 and April 15) must provide written notice to each tenant at least ten days before termination. The notice states that if anyone in the building has a serious illness or medical condition that would be aggravated by the loss of heat he or she should call the New York City Heatline.

A call to the Heatline prevents termination for 15 business days or until the Human Resources Administration ("HRA") declares that there is no threat to health or safety.

If heat-related service has already been terminated and the utility company receives notice from HRA that a resident is likely to suffer a serious threat to health or safety, the utility company must restore service.

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