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Foreclosure fallout: Renters forced out of lost homes

  • Story Highlights
  • Philadelphia woman being evicted from her rental home in foreclosure
  • Alice Mills ignored eviction notices because landlord said he'd "take care of it"
  • Foreclosures across United States up dramatically over last year
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By Sara Lane
CNN
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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Alice Mills signed her lease in February, thinking she would have a nice place to stay for the next year, until she could make her way into a senior citizens' community.

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Alice Mills thought this lease would let her live in her rental house for a year. Because of foreclosure, it won't.

The corner house she found in northeast Philadelphia was small, but it was enough for the 67-year-old great-great-grandmother who lives by herself.

Then in July, Mills got a rude surprise when she came home from a hospital stay to find a sheriff's notice on the door, saying the house had been foreclosed and she must call about being evicted.

Mills says her landlord told her not to worry because he would "take care of it," so she ignored other letters and notices that came to the apartment. Not until a sheriff's deputy showed up on November 13 did Mills take the eviction notices seriously. He told her she had to be out of the house the next day.

Mills is one of a growing number of renters who are being caught up in the nation's foreclosure crisis. According to RealtyTrac, a company that tracks foreclosures across the country, 1,785,596 foreclosures have been filed nationwide so far this year, a dramatic increase over a year ago. RealtyTrac say October foreclosures this year were up 94 percent over last October.

In most states, when a bank forecloses on a landlord, the tenant has no guarantee of being allowed to stay in the property. In addition, neither the bank nor the landlord has any legal obligation to inform the tenant of the foreclosure. Often, the renter first learns of the foreclosure when he or she is being told to vacate the property within a few days or weeks. Video Watch Mills' struggle to find a place to live »

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No one can say how many tenants are finding themselves in this situation, according to Judith Liben, an attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. She has been studying this issue and says it's happening in both poor and middle-class neighborhoods.

"It's a significant problem all around the country, in cities, in suburbs and in fact in some rural areas," Liben says. Higher-end neighborhoods haven't been affected as much because they have not experienced foreclosure problems to the same extent as lower- and middle-class neighborhoods.

With such short notice, people living on a fixed income -- like Mills -- can have trouble finding new living arrangements, and the situation can be taxing financially. Besides the need to come up with a security deposit for a new rental house or apartment, tenants may never recoup their security deposit from the foreclosed landlord.

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Often people have continued to pay rent to a landlord even though that landlord no longer owns the dwelling.

Lenders sometimes offer an incentive to tenants called "cash for keys," in which they give the tenant money if they'll move out within a certain period of time, but Liben is skeptical.

"These offers are usually useless. They are just small change that doesn't help with the problem at all and doesn't help the renter who is forced quickly out into a market that they have to navigate at their own peril," says Liben.

A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November may help renters in this situation. It would give tenants who must leave the property because of a foreclosure, and who have leases, up to six months to vacate after being told of the foreclosure. However, that bill would not become law until sometime next year at the earliest, if it becomes law at all.

Lenders are opposed to a law that would force them to become landlords. The Mortgage Bankers Association, an industry group, says in a statement to CNN that "it really is unfortunate that a renter, who is essentially blameless in the whole process, faces eviction if their landlord is foreclosed upon. However, forcing new requirements on lenders would be extremely burdensome as most lenders have neither the knowledge nor ability to be effective long-term landlords."

Even if a national law is passed, it won't come soon enough for Alice Mills. Working through a community housing organization, the Housing Association of Delaware Valley, Mills was given several more weeks to stay in the house. She now has until December 9 to leave, but so far has nowhere to go. She is distraught.

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"I need a longer time to get a place, a decent place, a safe place," she says, wiping tears from her eyes. "I really need longer."

Unfortunately for her -- and many other renters across the nation -- time may be running out. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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