Chicago Sheriff Stands up for Renters

Losing a home to foreclosure is a nightmare, causing at least one person — Carlene Balderrama of Massachusetts — to commit suicide in recent months. Seeing all the money, work, love, care and dreams put into a home seized out from under you is a frightening and heartbreaking experience, to say the least.

But an under-reported part of the whole foreclosure crisis — ongoing for months and likely to get even worse with the recent economic crash — is the eviction of renters often with little or no advance notice.

When a building is foreclosed upon the owner has several months’ notice, but renters usually have no idea about the owner’s financial status. So when sheriffs are sent to evict people from a foreclosed building, it may be the first the actual residents have heard of it. Most states have laws mandating advance notice to renters, but these laws commonly are not adequately enforced. This means countless scenes of life-shattering chaos, with families thinking they are starting another regular day and ending up with their belongings on the street and nowhere to go.

As foreclosures disproportionately (though not exclusively) hit lower income and minority neighborhoods, renters evicted through foreclosure are also more likely to be low income and vulnerable, with little savings to find a new home at a moment’s notice.

In Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, Sheriff Thomas Dart put his foot down and refused to let his department be a tool of banks evicting renters who could have been paying their monthly rent with utmost responsibility, unaware of the debts of their landlords.

“These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not people, and don’t care who’s in the building,” Dart said in a statement on October 8. “They simply want their money and don’t care who gets hurt along the way. On top of it all, they want taxpayers to fund their investigative work for them. We’re not going to do their jobs for them anymore. We’re just not going to evict innocent tenants. It stops today.”

Foreclosure evictions in Cook County have tripled since 2006, according to the sheriff’s department, with 4,500 so far this year. The sheriff’s website says:

“Last year, Dart pushed a bill before the Legislature that would have required mortgage companies to identify any children or senior citizens living in a unit before requesting an eviction. Dart hoped to link those vulnerable residents with social service agencies, but banking and real estate industry lobbyists killed the bill.”

Tenants’ rights groups around the country said that while there is some state and municipal legislation being discussed and proposed to protect tenants from foreclosure evictions, no other public officials have taken a stand.

“The foreclosures are streaming through the courts; I’ve been in eviction court every day, in a week I’ll see as many people impacted by foreclosure as I used to see in a year,” said Steven Kellman, director of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego. He said the evictions are split about 50-50 between renters and homeowners.

The legislation or rule changes proposed on various levels are doubtless needed. But such processes will do little to help tenants being evicted right now, who may lose a job or be exposed to violence and cold weather on the street if they have nowhere to go. In the face of a crisis with such immediate human impacts, immediate human action like Dart’s is needed.

Kari Lydersen
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program. www.karilydersen.com.

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