What to do when a tenant disappears

Wednesday July 22 2020

A man walks past Kensington Apartments in

A man walks past Kensington Apartments in Lubowa, Wakiso District. If your tenant abandons their property, notify the authorities. Photo/ Ismail Kezaala 

By Carolyne B. Atangaza

Tenants accumulating rent arrears and disappearing in the night is nothing new. But what is new is the rate at which it is now happening and the impunity with which it is being done, thanks to the economic distress caused by the lockdown. One land lady observed that most tenants had misunderstood president Museveni’s plea of leniency from tenants to mean rent exemption.

“This week I had to bring the LC to explain to a tenant that the government was not paying their rent and while I had understood, I expected my arrears to be paid. after a long struggle, they left behind a second hand TV screen that cannot even cover a quarter of what is owed,” the landlady shared.
According to property manager Fahad Kazibwe, the single most common reason tenants tend to vanish because they are behind on rent or owe other unpaid fees, are facing an eviction. Sometimes however there is also the chance that something horrible happened to your tenant, like death or kidnapping, or they are running for their lives.

“A tenant may sneak out in the middle of the night without even informing their neighbors about their move or where they are going. If they move out with all their property that is a clear indication they will never return. Others keep sneaking out a few belongings and leave just a few things which might confuse the landlord. But you will definitely know they will never come back,” Kazibwe shares.

Notify authorities
If the tenant has not occupied the property in months yet there are valuable items left behind, it is prudent to notify local authorities if you cannot get a hold of them or their emergency contact.
Sometimes there is a fine line between a tenant abandoning a property and simply being gone for a while. Unusual circumstances, such as an extended business trip, a hospital stay or even jail time can make it seem as if the tenant has abandoned the property when legally they are still occupants. “You need to be careful especially when there is property left behind. Some tenants are just poor at communication or assume the property owner will understand that they are away for a few months and intend to clear the arrears on their return. Breaking into their property might result into an unnecessary lawsuit,” Kazibwe notes.

Establish the status
Before you take any steps, George Arinaitwe, a lawyer recommends clearly establishing abandonment in order to make sure you are within your legal rights. If you suspect that your tenant has disappeared and has no intention of returning to the property, you need to follow the appropriate steps before moving forward with repossessing the property.

The Distress for Rent ACT
“Under the Distress for Rent (Bailiffs) Act Cap.76, a landlord or property owner has powers to sell assets of a tenant who refuses to pay rent. However, there are stringent conditions to be followed, for example, the sale should be carried out by a Court bailiff under Section 2 of the Act which provides that
“No person, other than a landlord in person, his or her attorney or the legal owner of a reversion, shall act as bailiff to levy any distress for rent unless he or she shall be authorised to act as bailiff by a certificate in writing under the hand of a certifying officer, and such certificate may be general or apply to a particular distress or distresses.” Arinaitwe shares.

Penalty
Section 4 of the Act provides for a penalty for acting without certificate. It provides that, “Any person, required by this Act to hold a certificate as a bailiff, who levies distress for rent without being the holder of a certificate, is, without prejudice to any civil liability, liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred shillings.”
Arinaitwe suggests working with an attorney familiar with landlord-tenant laws when dealing with a disappearing tenant.

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Abandonement clause
Another way to protect yourself against absconding tenants is including a clause in the tenant agreement that defines abandoned property terms and what steps you will take to establish abandonment.
Besides the residence that might have been abandoned, if your tenants left personal property behind.

List items
Typically, a landlord has to list the abandoned items, store the property, and notify the concerned authorities about it.
If the landlord fails to hear from the tenant after a certain amount of time, the landlord can sell the items to pay for the storage and arrears.

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