Hidden Victims of Eviction

Law-abiding renters often lose their homes when landlords get into mortgage trouble. Sasha Abramsky on how banks, realtors, and courts gang up on families. Plus: How to help.

CENTRAL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA—In August 2008, Rainy and James Rightmire, along with their 13-year old-daughter and 8-year-old son, moved into a rental property owned by a friend. It was a large house with a pool, and the family was happy in it. They put their own savings into maintaining the home, and kept it immaculate. Come the start of each month, they always paid their $1,400 rent.

The Rightmires—James an advertising executive, Rainy a homemaker—had moved back from Hawaii to the town of Modesto, deep in California’s Central Valley, to be closer to Rainy’s parents. But barely a year after they moved in, the Rightmires started finding manila envelopes ominously pinned to their door. They were addressed to the owner—their friend—and asked him to contact his bank. Their landlord denied there was a problem. But, shortly afterward, the Rightmires were approached by a realtor. He told them the owner was at risk of going into foreclosure, and, on his behalf, he offered to sell them the house. Unless they said yes and quickly ponied up tens of thousands of dollars for a down payment, the owner, no longer acting as their friend, would have no choice but to start eviction proceedings.

“It was really hard on the kids,” recalls Rainy Rightmire. “I felt like such a bad mom. How could I let that happen?”

The maneuver was clearly illegal—an attempt to scare the tenants into either buying or leaving a property on which they had signed a lease—but it didn’t leave the Rightmires with many options. They chose to leave their home. In early December, the movers packed up their belongings and the Rightmires reluctantly left.

“It was really hard on the kids,” recalls Rainy Rightmire of the eviction process. She is sitting at her dining room table in the family’s new residence, beneath a framed quote hanging on the cream-colored walls: “Dance like there’s nobody watching. Love like you’ll never get hurt. Sing like there’s nobody listening. Live like it’s heaven on earth.” She stops, and contemplates again the experience of losing the family’s home. “I felt like such a bad mom. How could I let that happen?”

Rainy and James represent the hidden face of America’s housing market implosion. Unlike homeowners with underwater mortgages, the story of renters caught in the foreclosure web has largely been ignored. Yet in many ways they represent the ultimate collateral damage in the great and ongoing housing market crash. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has estimated that up to 40 percent of families facing eviction nationally due to foreclosure proceedings are renters. In theory, a new federal law signed by President Obama in May 2009, the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, allows tenants to stay in their homes until their lease expires—or 90 days for month-to-month renters. Some states and cities have additional “Just Cause” protections that prevent tenants who are up-to-date on their rent from being evicted after a foreclosure.

In practice, though, most renters don’t know their rights—and few landlords or banks step up to the plate and honestly inform at-risk renters of these rights. Realtors and banks offer tenants “cash-for-keys,” providing a lump sum if they leave the property immediately, and a lower amount if they take a week or two to vacate. Left out of the conversation is the fact that tenants actually have the legal right to refuse the cash, continue to pay rent, and stay in their homes.

“Tenants call our hotline very confused, very upset, and just scared,” explains Gabe Treves of Tenants Together, a San Francisco-based legal group that represents tenants facing eviction because their landlords have defaulted on their mortgage obligations. “This is happening to entire communities; whole blocs being devastated. Apartment blocs going to be wiped out—and these people are going to be displaced.”

Here’s how the nightmare begins: Like the Rightmires, tenants frequently find misleading warnings pasted to their doors. “Attention!!” one such missive reads. “This property has been foreclosed and is now bank-owned. The eviction process has started. The property is being monitored.” Another announces, “We were informed this property was vacant. We have changed the locks.” It then goes on to tell the tenants of the “vacant” property how they can locate their seized personal possessions.

Throughout the foreclosure epidemic, one in three of the homes lost nationwide are thought to have been occupied by renters. Many have been evicted not from tenements and slums, but from suburbs and McMansions. The Rightmires’ home was in the 1,700 square foot range, close to a good school, quintessentially suburban. Moreover, in towns like Modesto and Tracy, California renters have found that even when they know their rights, judges are themselves often ignorant of the laws and unwilling to side with tenants over property owners.

Selma Bonadie and her four grown children were among the victims. Bonadie worked full-time for a local ministry, and her three oldest children held down jobs, as well. Her son, who had just returned from a stint with the marines in Iraq, is now a logistics manager. Her youngest daughter was preparing to enroll in the San Francisco Academy of Arts.

The family had agreed to put down an outrageously high security deposit on their 3,000 square foot, two-car-garage suburban home in Tracy—just the price for doing business in uncertain economic times, their landlord had told them. Month-in, month-out, they paid their rent on time. Yet when the landlord decided to go for a short-sale to avoid the bank seizing his home, and sought to evict his tenants so as to make the sale easier, the Bonadies were left vulnerable to homelessness.

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Legal Services advised the family to stop paying rent, since their landlord had skipped out on his mortgage payments and wasn’t performing basic upkeep on the home. When the Bonadies were served with eviction papers, they presented the courts with an array of documents showing they had acted in accordance with Califorina’s tenant law. The judge ordered their eviction to proceed anyhow, and on November 12, the sheriff forced them to leave their home.

It was, he said apologetically, one of 22 evictions he had to carry out that day.

Get Involved: Californians interested in working for local just cause ordinances can contact Tenants Together for advice. At the national level, the National Low Income Housing Coalition provides renters with a package of information on how to fight foreclosure-related evictions. The most effective way to fight the eviction epidemic in your community is to coordinate with these groups to lobby for a local Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in your city.

Plus: Check out more from Giving Beast, featuring news, video, and amazing photographs of people, places, and issues that need our support.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of Breadline USA. His latest book, a profile of President Barack Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain, was published by Penguin’s Portfolio imprint in December.