Protect Eviction Right Against Household that Abandons Unit
Households that skip out without paying rent and don’t let you know where they’ve gone and whether they’re coming back can cause big headaches. When a unit is abandoned you have to deal with problems like frozen pipes and more serious health and safety hazards. And you need to figure out what to do about the household’s assistance.
The best way to protect yourself is to take steps to determine whether the household abandoned the unit, and ask a court to evict the household so you can clean out the unit, terminate the household’s assistance, and re-rent the unit. HUD makes clear that you can evict households that “abandon” their units by being absent for a set period, not paying rent, and not responding to your notices about the overdue rent [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 6-9 (B)(2)].
But if you act too quickly, you may not be able to prove to a court that the household abandoned the unit, and you’ll lose your case. Or the household may return and sue you for illegally evicting it. Instead, it’s important to first do some investigating and gather hard evidence to support your belief that the household abandoned the unit.
To build the strongest possible case against a household you suspect has abandoned its unit, take the following five steps. To help you, we’ve included a Model Letter: Notify Household of Abandoned Unit, which you can adapt to send to households to show HUD and a court that you did all you could to deal with the situation before evicting the household.
Step #1: Check House Rules
Check whether your site has a house rule on abandonment that gives guidelines on what constitutes abandonment, and what steps you’ll take if you suspect that a household has abandoned the unit. If you have such a house rule, follow those guidelines when taking our recommended steps.
If you don’t have a house rule on abandonment, it’s a good idea to adopt one. Review our Model House Rule: Spell Out Absence and Abandonment Policy—it spells out that you’ll seek to evict any household you consider to have abandoned its unit. Specifically, our rule requires households to notify management if they’ll be away from the site for more than 30 days. And it says that you’ll seek to evict households that: (1) don’t pay rent; (2) disappear from the site for more than 30 days; and (3) don’t respond to your attempts to contact them.
Step #2: Keep Track of Absence
It’s important to keep track of how long the household has been gone, so that you can start taking action after a set period of time (for example, 30 days). If you have a house rule on abandonment, it should specify a time period after which you’ll take action against the household. Start counting the time period for abandonment as soon as you suspect that a household has disappeared. In case a household challenges the eviction in court, put a memo in the household’s file that specifies when you began counting the time period. For example, you might write a short memo saying:
On July 8, 2013, the postman reported to me that the Smiths’ mailbox is overflowing with mail. We also have not gotten the Smiths’ rent payment for July. We think that the Smiths may have abandoned their unit. We will begin taking appropriate action in 30 days if they have not returned.
To keep track of when to begin “appropriate action,” mark the end of the time period on your calendar. For example, if you use a 30-day time period and start counting on July 8, make a note on Aug. 8 of your calendar to begin action if the household hasn’t returned by then.
In the meantime, don’t forget to send the household your standard rent demand notice once the grace period for paying rent has passed, to show HUD and a court that the household has ignored your request for rent payment.
Step #3: Inspect Unit for Signs of Abandonment
If the time period runs out and the household hasn’t returned, it’s time to take action. Start by inspecting the household’s unit. During the inspection, look for evidence that shows the household has abandoned the unit, says Charles Durnin, senior vice president of Interstate Realty Management. You can look for certain obvious signs—for example, no furniture, or utilities and phone service that are shut off. Also, check the kitchen for rotting food and vermin infestation. And note the expiration date of any milk or other perishable food in the refrigerator. If a perishable food date expired, say, over a month earlier, it’s a good indication that the unit hasn’t been occupied. Keep a record of what you find during an inspection, and use the results to back up your eviction case.
Durnin recommends that you ask the police to accompany you when you inspect the unit. When you ask for this assistance, tell the police that you haven’t seen household members for some time and are concerned that something is wrong. A police report covering what officers saw in the unit could help to support your eviction case. And if police officers were with you, household members would have a harder time claiming later that you stole things from their unit when you entered it. In Durnin’s experience, police officers are generally willing to help out in this situation. If you can’t enlist the help of your local police, ask another staff member or a member of your site’s tenant association, if there is one, to accompany you as a witness.
Step #4: Send Letter to Household
Try to contact the household to show HUD and a court that you made a reasonable effort to deal with the situation before seeking eviction. You can address the letter to the unit even though the household is absent from the site. The letter might be forwarded to household members if, for example, they left a forwarding address at the post office. Or someone may periodically be picking up and forwarding their mail. It’s also a good idea to send a copy of the letter to the address of any emergency contacts the household gave to management, as we noted in our Model House Rule. Like our Model Letter, your letter should cover the following points:
Specify that absence counts as abandonment. Tell household members that their absence, along with their failure to pay rent, counts as abandonment. If you’re using a house rule like our Model House Rule, cite that rule.
Give inspection results. Tell household members that you inspected their unit. Describe any unsanitary conditions you found, such as rotten food and vermin infestation. And say that the unsanitary conditions violate the lease.
Require response and give deadline. Inform household members that they must contact you if they want to keep their unit. Specify the date by which they must contact you.
Warn of legal action. The letter should make it clear that the household faces legal action, including eviction, if it doesn’t respond.
Be sure to send the letter by certified mail. The post office paperwork will give you proof if you must show a court that you made an effort to contact the household.
Step #5: Seek Eviction
If household members don’t respond to your letter, turn the matter over to your site’s attorney. Tell your site’s attorney about all of the lease violations the household has committed—such as nonpayment of rent, and unsanitary conditions in the unit—not just its long, unexplained absence from the site. Your attorney should cite all of the violations when putting together the eviction case. Then, if household members return and claim that they didn’t intend to give up their unit, you’ll still have other reasons to support an eviction case.
Occasionally, you may have a situation where a household disappears but still mails in a rent check each month. You’ll have a hard time convincing a court to evict a household that’s keeping up with its rent payments. But the household could get into trouble with HUD. HUD doesn’t want to give housing assistance to a household that, for example, spends the winter in Florida. If something like this occurs at your site, contact your local HUD office and ask for written instructions on how to handle the situation. For instance, HUD may tell you to terminate the household’s assistance but allow the household to keep its unit at market rent.
Charles Durnin: Senior Vice-President, Interstate Realty Management Co., 3 East Stow Rd., Marlton, NJ 08053; www.themichaelsorg.com.
See The Model Tools For This Article
|Notify Household About Abandoned Unit|
|Spell Out Absence and Abandonment Policy with House Rule|