Understanding utilities as a tenant

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
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This article answers common questions about getting and keeping your heat and electricity services.

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Who pays for utilities?

The chart below tells you whether you or your landlord pay each type of utility.  

Type of utilityWho pays for the utility?
WaterLandlord is usually required to pay. For more information, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 6: Utilities.
Fuel for hot waterLandlord pays unless a written document that you signed says the tenant must pay.
Fuel for heatLandlord pays unless a written document that you signed says the tenant must pay.
Electricity and gasLandlord must pay unless there is a separate meter for the tenant's electricity and gas use and a written document says that the tenant must pay.


Public housing
If you live in public housing, check your lease to see if you have to pay utilities. In state public housing, your rent is based on your net income and whether you pay utilities. If you live in federal public housing and pay for utilities, a Utility Allowance gets subtracted from your monthly rent. Each housing authority sets its own Utility Allowance. 

If you face foreclosure, see Utilities After a Foreclosure to learn more. 

 

How do I start the utility service when I move in?

If you signed an agreement to pay for gas or electricity, contact the gas or electric company when you move in.

Utility companies may let you ask to begin a new service over the phone. Some companies ask you to fill out a form and provide proof of identity. But you do not need to be a citizen or have legal status in the U.S. to get utility service. 

Also see What can I do if I owe money from a previous address?

What if I cannot pay my current bill or am already behind on utility payments?

If you cannot pay your current bill:

You may get a discounted rate. Gas and electric companies are required to offer discounts if your income is low and you receive government assistance such as fuel assistance (LIHEAP), SSI, SNAP food benefits, or Head Start. See Can I get a discount on my utilities?

If you need help to pay your heating bill, find out if you qualify for the Fuel Assistance Program. Call 800-632-8175.

If you are behind on payments at your current address:

Call your utility company immediately and ask about payment plans, which are available to all customers. Utility companies also have special programs called Arrearage Management Programs for low-income customers. If you qualify, every time you pay a bill on time, they give you a credit on your past due bill.

If you owe a bill from a prior address: 

The utility company might not turn on your new service until you pay off your bill from a prior address. You can contact the company to negotiate a payment plan on the bill from a prior address. Do not agree to pay an amount you cannot afford. See What can I do if I owe money from a previous address?

To learn more, see Get Help to Pay Your Bills. 

You may also be able to get help from a rental assistance program. You must be financially eligible. See Applying for Emergency Housing Payment Assistance.

When can a utility company shut off service?

A utility company's ability to shut off your service depends on your situation:

  • If you fail to pay utility bills at your current address, the utility company can shut off your service. But they must follow certain rules. See: Rights During the Termination Process.
  • A utility company cannot shut off your services for charges from a prior address or for money a prior tenant owes. See: What can I do if I owe money at a previous address? 
  • If all residents of your home are age 65 and over, your electricity or gas cannot be shut off without permission from the Department of Public Utilities (DPU). If all adults are over 65, and there is a minor in the house, the service can never be shut off if the household’s income is below 60% of the state median income. 
  • If your household is low-income or you are experiencing financial hardship, a utility company cannot shut off your services if:
    • You have an infant under the age of 1. To seek this protection, you can call your utility company directly. You will have to fill out a financial hardship form. You also must prove your child's age through a birth certificate, letter, or official document from a doctor, hospital, government agency, clergyman, or religious institution. 
    • All adults in your home are 65 or older and a minor child lives in the home; or 
    • Someone in the household has a serious or chronic illness, whether physical (like diabetes, ADHD, or asthma), or mental/emotional. The illness must be certified by a letter from a medical professional.

      Learn more about this protection on the Attorney General's Office website.
  • Special Winter Protections: If you cannot afford heat for the winter months from November 15 to March 15, an electric or gas company cannot shut off your service. Sometimes this protection lasts until April, too. To get this protection, ask the company for a financial hardship application. 
  • If your landlord is responsible for utilities and doesn’t pay, the utility company must give you at least 30 days' notice before they shut off your service.

To learn more, see Protections Against Shutoffs.

What if the heat goes off?

A landlord must provide heat from September 15 through May 31.

If the heat goes off, call your landlord immediately. If you cannot reach the landlord or they do not fix the problem, call the local Board of Health. Tell them there is a problem with the heat. The law requires them to do their best to inspect your apartment within 24 hours. For more, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.

If your landlord turns off your heat, you can also ask a court to order the landlord to turn the heat back on.

What can I do if I have a dispute with my utility company?

If your utility company doesn't fix a problem, ask them to protect your service until the issue is resolved.

If they haven’t shut off your service already, they cannot shut it off while they are resolving the dispute. 

If the utility company does not help you, contact the Department of Public Utilities. You can

If I pay for any utilities, does that affect my rent?

The impact that paying for utilities has on your rent depends on what type of housing you live in.

Private Housing

Look at your lease. Your lease should say your rental amount. It should also include whether you are responsible for utilities.

If you do not have a written lease, your landlord is usually responsible for utilities (unless there is a separate written document requiring you to pay for utilities).

Public Housing

Paying for some or all of your utilities will affect your rent. Utilities generally include electricity, gas, and oil but not telephone or cable TV. There are different rules for state and federal public housing. 

Utilities and Rent in Public Housing
State public housing 

For elderly/disabled public housing, your rent will be:

  • 30% of your monthly net income if you pay no utilities
  • 25% of your monthly net income if you pay some or all utilities

For family public housing, your rent will be:

  • 32% of your monthly net income, if you pay no utilities
  • 30% of your monthly net income if you pay some of your utilities
  • 27% of your monthly net income if you pay all utilities 
Federal public housing  

For federal public housing, you usually pay whichever is more:

  • 30% of adjusted monthly income; or 10% of monthly income; or welfare rent, if applicable; or a $25 minimum rent or higher amount (up to $50) set by the local housing authority.
  • Most tenants pay 30% of adjusted income.  
  • If you pay utilities, then a utility allowance is subtracted from this monthly amount.  

If your household includes immigrants, you usually pay a prorated rent which is often much higher than the regular rent. 

If I have a Section 8 or MRVP voucher, do I pay utilities?

Whether you pay utilities depends on what your written lease says. 

The Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP) and the Federal Housing Section 8 voucher programs may give you a "Utility Allowance." A Utility Allowance is a certain amount of money provided monthly. Your housing authority decides the amount of your Utility Allowance based on the average cost of utilities where you live for similar household sizes. You only receive a Utility Allowance if you are responsible for paying for utilities. If your landlord pays for utilities, you will not receive this allowance.

MRVP Utility Allowances apply to both Mobile and Project Based Vouchers. 

For more about MRVP Utility Allowances, see the Boston Housing Authority Utility Allowance Chart.
 

For more about Section 8 Utility Allowances, see Regional Section 8 Utility Allowances.

This article is an overview. For more detailed information, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 6: Utilities

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