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ENERGY

Is it legal for German landlords to turn down heat this winter?

Fears of winter gas shortages have prompted some German landlords to restrict temperatures and access to hot water in their properties. Is there anything tenants can do about it?

Housing estate Berlin winter
Frost lies on the ground near a housing estate in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Jörg Carstensen/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

What’s happening?

On Monday, July 11th, the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that runs between Russia and Germany was turned off for routine maintenance. For the first time since its been in operation, escalating tensions between the two nations have led to fears that it may not be turned on again.

For weeks, Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has been calling on households to reduce their energy usage: taking shorter showers, turning off lights and electrical equipment, and minimising the use of hot water. 

So far this has largely been left up to individual choice. However, there are some cases of landlords and housing co-ops making the decision on tenants’ behalf.

Most recently, Germany’s largest landlord Vonovia announced that its tenants would only be able to heat their flats up to 17C in the nighttime – a move that it says will save around eight percent in energy costs. 

A housing co-op in Saxony has taken more drastic steps by turning off the heating entirely until September and putting time slots in place when tenants are able to take hot showers.

In exceptional times, tenants may feel like they aren’t able to complain about these restrictions. But according to German tenancy law, there are things they can do.

READ ALSO: German housing co-op slammed for restricting access to tenants’ hot water

Are rent reductions possible?

Long before the energy crisis, renters and landlords have argued over issues like access to hot water and heating in properties. This means there’s a solid legal precedent to refer to, which clearly stipulates that hot water can’t simply be turned off at certain times.

Monika Schmid-Balzert, a lawyer at the Bavarian regional association of the German Tenants’ Association, recommends that tenants first contact their landlord or letting agent if they notice any issues with the heating or hot water.

According to the German Tenants’ Association, rent reductions are possible for any “defects” that exist in a rented property. These can start automatically from the date of the defect, without the tenant needing to provide notice or set a deadline for the landlord to fix the issue.

For example, if hot water isn’t turned on at night, tenants should be eligible for an eight percent reduction in their rent for as long as the hot water supply is restricted.

If the landlord still doesn’t take action, tenants can consider taking legal action to force them to turn on the hot water or the heating once again. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get a rent reduction for problems in your German flat

What does the law say about temperatures in rental flats?

This is where things get a little bit trickier, as different courts have decided different things over the years.

However, the general consensus is that temperatures should be set at a minimum of 20-22C during the day and 16-18C at night. 

This makes things slightly unclear in the case of Vonovia, who want to set the maximum temperature to 17C between 11pm and 6am from autumn onwards. 

Speaking to Tagesschau, tenancy law expert Schmid-Balzert claimed that properties should be heated at a minimum of 18C in the nighttime. “Anything lower than that is currently too little at night,” she said. 

Thermostat

A man turns down the heat in his apartment. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

But Ulrike Kirchhoff, chairwoman of the homeowners’ association Haus und Grund Bayern, disagreed that 18C was the minimum. 

She said that it was the landlords’ duty to ensure that there was enough hot water and that properties were heated “within the limits set by the legislator and the courts”. Nevertheless, Vonovia’s decision to lower the heat to 17C in the evenings was “justifiable”, she said.

Haus and Grund also point out that no firm decision on minimum temperatures has been reached by the Federal Court of Justice.

READ ALSO: German energy crisis: Call for reduction in minimum temperatures for tenants

What if tenants give their consent on energy savings?

If landlords and tenants are able to come to an agreement on energy-saving measures, landlords should be able to implement these decisions without any fear of reprisals or potential rent reduction claims. But this isn’t always an easy thing to achieve.

Firstly, every affected tenant should agree to the new measures, and they should also do so explicitly (i.e. in writing). The more tenants there are who could be impacted, the harder this becomes. 

Tenancy law experts, meanwhile, recommend that landlords trust their tenants to implement their own energy saving measures for the time being. That could include rearranging furniture to improve heat circulation or getting a water-saving shower head. 

If the situation continues to worsen, it’s possible that the government will implement its own restrictions on energy usage such as lower minimum temperatures in flats or limits on hot water usage. In this case, landlords would have to implement the law.

For now, however, they can only act as far as the current law allows them to. 

For example, the Association of Bavarian Housing Companies recommend that its members “align the buildings as closely as possible to the legally required minimum temperature”. This is at least 20C in living rooms, bathrooms and toilets between 6am and 11pm.

In cases like this, tenants may notice a slight difference in the temperature of the flat, but the law will ultimately be on the side of the landlord. 

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ENERGY

German government pledges to subsidise rising electricity bills

For most electricity customers in Germany, grid fees are set to rise next year. But the government plans to inject €13 billion to ease the burden on consumers.

German government pledges to subsidise rising electricity bills

The four major transmission system operators (TSOs) said the price of grid fees would be set at an average of 3.12 cents per kilowatt hour next year, slightly higher than the current average of 3.08 cents/kWh. For the first time, the cost will be at the same level across Germany.

Grid fees form part of the electricity bills paid by consumers, along with other taxes and production costs. The charges make up about 10 percent of private customer bills. 

Those who live in the area of the network operator Tennet, which supplies Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and parts of Hesse and Bavaria, can, however, expect a slight decrease in the network fee.

In the rest of the country, grid fees currently stand somewhere between 2.94 and 3.04 cents per kWh. The four TSOs – 50Hertz, Amprion, Transnet BW and Tennet – said the price increases were due to the higher costs needed for procuring energy, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

READ ALSO: Why electric fan heaters could make energy crisis worse

The cost for transmission networks has more than tripled from €5 billion to €18 billion.

To ensure that grid fees for customers do not also more than triple, the German government has pledged to give a subsidy of €13 billion.

“We are now making sure that these cost increases are absorbed, thereby preventing an additional burden for industrial companies, small and medium-sized businesses and consumers,” said German Economic and Climate Minister Robert Habeck. “We will use almost €13 billion to keep costs down.”

He said this would be carried out in connection with the planned electricity price cap.

READ ALSO: Germany to spend €200 billion to cap soaring energy costs

The coalition government, made up of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, is planning to dampen grid fees in the medium term by skimming off high windfall profits from electricity producers to fund a price cap. 

The money for the subsidy will also be covered by Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG) funding. Electricity customers in Germany had to pay an EEG levy, aimed at boosting renewable energy, up until it was dropped earlier this year due to spiralling prices. 

The German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) called on the coalition to take action quickly and introduce subsidies.

“It is right that a state subsidy is planned for this exceptional situation,” said Kerstin Andreae of BDEW.

The significantly higher costs would otherwise lead to increased network fees that customers would have to pay, Andreae said. 

READ ALSO: German households see record hikes in heating costs 

Vocabulary 

Network fees/charges – (die) Netzentgelte

Electricity price – (der) Strompreis

Consumers – (die) Verbraucher

To increase/rise – steigen

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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