Esteban Cruz digs his hands into a big plastic tub of letters and documents bundled and labeled by month.
This mass of paper represents the past year the tenants of his building in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood have been fighting eviction since their building was foreclosed upon and the owner disappeared.
The tenants, mostly families from Mexico who have lived in the building 10 years or more, are like tens of thousands of families around the country facing foreclosure and eviction even though they have been paying their rent on time.
Esteban and his neighbors got national attention last summer when with the help of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council they convinced sheriff Tom Dart to suspend evictions of renters.
Their situation and advocacy also pushed the state government to change laws giving renters more protections. But despite all this attention – People Magazine even came with makeup artists to photograph them — and a protective order from a housing court judge, their nightmare continues.
They learned the building’s absentee owner had illegally converted the building to “condos,” even though the tenants themselves were never aware of this and had continued paying rent. Hence almost every “condo” in the building is now owned by a different bank. The APNC, a tireless grassroots community organization, has helped them obtain legal representation and is trying to work with the banks to make sure they can remain in the building. This is a task made even more difficult because of convoluted and controversial recent buyouts and takeovers of different financial institutions including notorious subprime lender Countrywide, which had owned one of the units.
Meanwhile the tenants continue to get threatening notices posted on their doors or in their mailboxes demanding they verify their residence within 24 hours or the locks will be changed. These letters ostensibly come from “representatives of the new owners.” Following calls from the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Better Housing the residents have gotten some apologies from these “representatives,” but nonetheless the threatening notices keep showing up.
The Albany Park tenants situation shows that as the foreclosure crisis drags on, and in many cases falls out of the media spotlight, it will be largely up to community and advocacy groups like the APNC and residents themselves to band together and fight for the rights of individual homeowners and renters as well as for reform of the mortgage system as a whole.
On a chilly November day the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network in Chicago’s mostly Latino Humboldt Park neighborhood held a foreclosure forum where several hundred people came for legal advice and support. Among other things lawyers and organizers at the event wanted to warn residents away from unscrupulous agents who claim they will help people avoid foreclosure, and in reality will take their money and get them even more mired in debt.
“The same predators who made the problem are now offering to be ‘counselors,’” noted Hector Gamboa of the Spanish Coalition for Housing, adding these people often use Spanish advertising and personal visits to gain the trust of immigrants and non-English speakers.
Jacqueline Rodriguez’s house is in foreclosure thanks to a bad loan she took after suffering financial losses during a messy divorce. She feels like it is too late for her to save the home she has lived in for 12 years, but she is trying to learn more about the process so she can help others.
“A lot of people have given up already, I’ve gotten to the point I’m looking for an apartment and packing,” she said. She describes how her mortgage company, Citi Residential, has changed names or hands several times, and how she keeps “getting mail from all these vultures” claiming they will help her.
“I’m learning from my falls. As time goes on I think there’s more help and knowledge out there, I just hope I can help other people.”