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Plucky community group alerted sheriff to evictions

Thursday, October 09, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times

Chalk up a win for the little guys in the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

A small victory perhaps, maybe a temporary one.

But all in all, a step in the right direction Wednesday by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, due in large part to the aggressive advocacy of a plucky community organization.

It was the Albany Park Community Council and the neighbors it represents who brought to Dart's attention the insane way banks were being allowed to evict innocent tenants whose landlords had lost their properties through mortgage foreclosure proceedings -- even when the tenants had paid their rent and knew nothing of the problems.

Dart announced his office will quit carrying out evictions stemming from mortgage foreclosures until lenders start providing proof they have taken the necessary steps to identify who is living at an address and that those facing eviction have received proper legal notice.

Typical of the mindless lending practices that got the nation into this financial mess in the first place, lenders have been trying to conduct evictions without actually figuring out who lives at the property. That should come as no surprise, I suppose, since it's now apparent they often never even bothered to find out to whom they were lending.

In the case of houses and condos that the previous owner was renting out, this careless practice has resulted in stunned tenants -- rent paid in full -- coming home from work to find their possessions on the curb. No notice. No opportunity to look for a new place to live. The same thing is happening with entire apartment buildings.

Dart said once he saw the abuse, he didn't want his office to be a part of it, especially at a time when foreclosure evictions are running 400 to 500 a month -- nearly triple what they were two years ago. "We're no longer going to be a party to something that is so unjust," Dart said.

In the process, Dart opens himself up to a possible contempt citation for failing to carry out the evictions, but only if a Cook County judge is silly enough to go that route, not that I'd put it past the banks.

Having watched this one develop from the ground floor, I give credit to Dart for doing the right thing.

The real heroes here, though, were Diane Limas and Emily Burns from the Albany Park group and the residents of a tidy brick building at 4914-4916 N. Spaulding, in particular Esteban and Maria Cruz, Pedro Ramirez and Alma Aquino.

They were savvy and gutsy enough to stand firm earlier this summer when a real estate agent working for one lender started using illegal bullying tactics to scare off the tenants, putting fliers in their mailboxes that said they had a week to move.

The community group investigated and found that an amazing scam had taken place.

As I first reported to you in June, Romanian businessman Mihail Stancu bought the building, filed paperwork as if he was converting it to condominiums, then took out loans on each unit without actually making any improvements to them. In the process, he cleared more than $1 million before fleeing the country. The tenants knew nothing.

After the story ran, the city stepped in and persuaded a judge to block all eviction proceedings while an effort was made to sort out the mess. Despite the order, sheriff's deputies unknowingly showed up later at one of the apartments with an order to evict Stancu and tried to throw out the tenants instead. Luckily, they backed off that day, and before they could return, the Albany Park group helped Dart see the light.

Even that hasn't kept the lenders from continuing their extra-legal harassment methods of the tenants in an attempt to get control of the property.

Some believe there are as many as 200 such fraudulent condo conversions now in foreclosure in Chicago. More common is your garden variety landlord getting in over his head. Either way, Dart said his deputies are showing up at more and more homes inhabited by someone other than the person they were supposed to evict.

Dart's action does nothing to impinge upon the rights of landlords to evict tenants who aren't paying their rent.

It does, however, create a situation in many foreclosure evictions where a lender may temporarily be unable to move forward with removing somebody who deserves the boot. That's a problem, but better that they get it right.

Illinois law gives a tenant 120 days to move after notification in the event of a foreclosure. Dart said lenders and their lawyers should be required to provide affidavits swearing the required notice was given.

"The people in Albany Park opened a lot of people's eyes in a hurry," Dart said.

Little guys who stand together are more likely to be seen.

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