Set House Rules on Extended Absences and Abandonment
Sometimes a household will disappear for weeks at a time. Signs may indicate the household may not come back. No one answers the household’s phone, their mail piles up, and their assigned parking space remains empty. When a unit is left unattended, health and safety hazards such as rotting food or frozen pipes can result. Plus, HUD frowns on wasted assistance if an assisted unit isn’t occupied. But often, when you think households are gone for good, they come back.
These unexplained absences can be frustrating—and may even violate HUD lease provisions that require assisted households to use their units as their primary residence. But you can’t simply clean out these units and re-rent them, because returning households could sue you for illegally evicting them or disposing of their belongings.
To avoid these problems, it’s important to have a house rule that requires households to notify you when they’ll be absent from the unit for an extended period of time. A rule should also set limits on extended absences and define when an absence becomes “abandonment.”
We’ll tell you why it’s to your benefit to adopt a house rule on extended absences and abandonment, and what HUD says these kinds of rules should include. Plus, we’ve given you a Model House Rule: Implement Extended Absence or Abandonment Policy to Clarify Household’s Occupancy Rights, which you can show your attorney and adopt after giving households at your site 30 days’ notice.
Why Having House Rule Is Important
It’s important to have a house rule on extended absences and abandonment so that you can:
Prevent households from keeping more than one residence. The HUD model lease states, “The Tenant must live in the unit and the unit must be the Tenant’s only place of residence. The Tenant shall use the premises only as a private dwelling for himself/herself and the individuals listed on the Owner’s Certification of Compliance with HUD’s Tenant Eligibility and Rent Procedures, Attachment 1. The Tenant agrees to permit other individuals to reside in the unit only after obtaining the prior written approval of the Landlord” [Handbook 4350.3, App. 4(a), par. 13].
You can help cut down or limit situations in which households regularly leave sometimes for entire seasons to warmer climates by setting a house rule on extended absences and abandonment. For example, requiring households to notify you of extended absences can help discourage households from leaving the site for long periods of time while keeping another residence. It can also help you keep better track of who’s habitually leaving the site at the same time each year so you can, say, investigate whether the household is keeping another residence. And limiting the time households can be absent from the unit makes it harder for them to keep more than one residence.
Know whether unit is abandoned. When households skip out on their leases in the middle of the night, managers must prepare the abandoned units for re-renting. This may involve packing up and disposing of the property left behind. Managers generally have the right to do this, as long as they know the unit is abandoned.
Unfortunately, managers can’t always tell when a unit is abandoned. Households rarely announce that they’re abandoning their units. They just leave. Waiting in vain for a household to return can cost your site money. If you wait too long for a household to return, you could miss out on collecting vacancy payments from HUD. And you may even have to pay back a portion of the monthly assistance on the unit to HUD, if HUD believes you’ve been unfairly collecting assistance on a unit that has been abandoned for months. But prematurely treating a unit as abandoned could make you liable for a wrongful eviction and misappropriation of property if the household does return.
Having a house rule on extended absences and abandonment will help you determine whether a unit is abandoned. That’s because if a household has gone away without notifying you as required and has stopped paying rent, you’ll have good reason to believe that the household has abandoned the unit.
Avoid damage to units. It’s important to know when households are absent, so you can keep tabs on their units and take action if necessary. For example, if a cold spell arrives and a pipe bursts, a break like this that goes unchecked for several days will cause significant damage. And if you suspect a unit has been abandoned, it’s important to have the right to inspect the unit for any health and safety problems.
Schedule maintenance and improvements. Another reason to stay on top of absences is that the most convenient time to get into a unit and do proactive maintenance is when households are away. If you know a household is going to be away, you can use this opportunity to arrange with them to fix that noisy refrigerator or put a new fan belt in the air conditioner while they’re gone.
What Rule Should Say
HUD Handbook 4350.3 doesn’t require you to adopt a house rule on absences and abandonment. But it does provide guidelines for what your house rule should include if you choose to adopt one [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par, 6-9(B)(2)]. Your house rule, like ours, should cover the following points:
Require households to notify you. Though HUD’s guidelines don’t mention this, your first step in solving the problem of unexplained household absences is to require households to tell you before they go away for extended periods. Some sites we spoke to require notice for absences of two weeks or more, others for absences of 30 days or more. Our Model House Rule requires households to give you written notice when they’ll be absent for 30 days or more [Rule, par. 1].
Set time limit for extended absence. You can set limits on the length of extended absences and tell households that they can lose their tenancy rights if they’re absent longer than those limits allow [Rule, par. 2]. The handbook gives guidelines of 60 days’ continuous absence, or 180 days if the absence is for medical reasons. It also says you may allow exceptions for “extenuating circumstances,” but doesn’t say what those circumstances might be [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 6-9(B)(2)(b)(2)].
If you choose to allow exceptions, make sure you apply them consistently to all households. This means that if one household comes to you with circumstances you deem “extenuating” and you let them remain absent longer than the time limit, you must grant an exception to other households in the same circumstances. Otherwise you could run into fair housing trouble from households who may claim you’re discriminating by not extending the time limit for them. To protect yourself, keep good written records of all extended absences and requests for extensions.
Define “abandonment.” HUD makes clear in its handbook that abandonment differs from an extended absence [Handbook 4350.3, par. 6–9]. If a household has gone away without notifying you, and it has stopped paying rent, you’ve got good reason to believe it has abandoned its unit. Define abandonment as a household’s absence from its unit for more than a set period of days, combined with not paying the rent; and not acknowledging or responding to your notices regarding the overdue rent.
It’s up to you to say how long a period a household’s absence combined with nonpayment of rent must be to constitute abandonment. Our Model House Rule says that management won’t consider a unit abandoned until the household has been absent for more than 30 consecutive days [Rule, par. 3]. HUD points out that you must comply with your state and local laws on abandonment, so be sure your house rule complies with your state and local law.
Require medical documentation. If a household claims to have a medical reason for spending more than 30 days away from their apartment, ask the household for medical documentation attesting to their need for an extended absence [Rule, par. 4]. HUD guidelines say you may allow absences up to 180 days if the absence is for medical reasons. And you may allow exceptions for extenuating circumstances [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 6-9(B)(2)(b)(2)].
Tell households you’ll inspect the unit and try to contact them. The rule should say that if you consider a unit to be abandoned, you’ll enter the unit for an emergency inspection. The HUD lease lets you enter a unit in case of emergency. If a household has abandoned a unit, an emergency inspection is justified to check for health and safety hazards.
Plus, HUD’s guidelines say house rules should specify what actions you’ll take to contact the household. Our Model House Rule says you’ll attempt to notify household members in writing at the household’s site address and at the address of any emergency contacts household gave to management [Rule, par. 5].
Be sure to check your state or local law for any other actions you must take. You may need to do more than send a notice—for example, you may need to call local police, talk to neighbors, or check with the local utility or telephone company for a forwarding address.
Warn that you’ll seek eviction. Your rule should also tell households that if they don’t respond when you attempt to contact them, you’ll take appropriate legal action, including termination of assistance and eviction. Our Model House Rule says that if households don’t respond within 15 days of the date of your notice, you’ll take such action [Rule, par. 6].
Tell households what steps you’ll take to handle and dispose of property. HUD’s guidelines say your rules must describe how you’ll handle and dispose of the household’s possessions left in the unit [HUD Handbook 4350.3, par. 6-9(B)(2)(b)(3)]. It’s smart to do this anyway, in case missing households return to the site and demand their property. If any of the property is lost or damaged, a household could sue you and ask a court to order you to pay the full value of the property. You can protect yourself by taking the right steps and telling households ahead of time what you’ll do to secure and then dispose of abandoned property.
Your state or local law will most likely govern how long you must wait until you can dispose of a household’s property. In most cases, you’ll have to store the property for at least a few weeks after getting an eviction order. Our house rule says management will take written and photographic inventory of the abandoned property and hold it for 30 days after getting an eviction order. The rule also states that after 30 days, management will give the property to a designated charity or, if the charity won’t take it, throw it out [Rule, par. 7].
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