As seen on our Message Boards.
Q: My tenant was arrested. They’ll be in jail/prison for a long time and the premises are now unoccupied. What do I do?
Tenants in jail still have rights to their property and apartment, they just have lost the right to access it personally. This puts landlords in a bind because almost certainly the tenant will be unable to pay rent. Also, as a landlord you don’t want the rented premises to be unoccupied 100% of the time, year-round. That’s just inviting maintenance problems to become serious.
First thing, leave everything in the apartment as it is. You cannot move or store belongings without a court order. Don’t change the locks. Don’t shut off the utilities. Assume that there’s a good chance the tenant will be released early and come back to see everything you’ve touched or changed.
Second, try to get in contact with the tenant through their jail or prison counselor, or if you collect emergency contact information, the emergency contact. If you can get the tenant to sign an agreement ending the tenancy early, you can get their permission to move and/or store their belongings elsewhere, preferably with family. This is what you want: a voluntary departure.
Failing that, you need to have the tenant served a notice to quit (talk to an attorney to make sure you have a valid reason). Tenants can be served in jail, but there’s a special procedure. And tenants can be taken from jail to appear at a housing court trial. Again, there are special procedures, but an experienced attorney in combination with the courts can walk you through it.