D.C. Renters Buffet Storm

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As the nation’s housing foreclosure crisis sweeps through the District of Columbia, the group best prepared to buffet the storm is renters.

Like New Jersey and New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., is one of three U.S. jurisdictions where a renter isn’t evicted after a foreclosure.

“We have a statute that lists nine reasons for which you can be evicted and if your landlord wants to kick you out for anything other than that, he can’t,” said Anne Smetak, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which advocates for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

In Illinois, whoever holds the mortgage on a property has the right to evict tenants in a building whose loan is in default at any point during and after the foreclosure lawsuit has been filed, as long as the tenant receives ample notice of the eviction and an opportunity to contest it in court. In Cook County in 2007, there were 2,497 two to six-unit apartment buildings that went into foreclosure, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of mortgage foreclosure filings compiled by the National Training and Information Center, a Chicago-based group that organizes communities around issues of racial and economic justice. Washington, D.C.’s law had the potential to help hundreds of renters stay in their homes and apartments in 2006 and 2007, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of mortgage foreclosure data compiled by NeighborhoodInfo DC, a

Washington, D.C.-based project of the Urban Institute and the Local Initiative Support Corp. that provides data to residents, leaders and community groups. NeighborhoodInfo found that in 2007, there were 306 apartment buildings in the district that entered foreclosure, nearly double what it was a year earlier. During the same two-year period, an additional 2,848 single family homes, some of which housed renters, also went into foreclosure.

“This law is an extremely valuable tool for keeping tenants in their homes,” said Julie Becker, a senior staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. But even with the law, tenants are not immune to illegal evictions because of foreclosure. Mortgagees, who hold the mortgage on the foreclosed property, often send notices to the homes–” ostensibly destined for their former landlords–”saying they must move in 30 days. If the tenant doesn’t move, the mortgagee files an eviction lawsuit against the landlord. If the tenant doesn’t show up in court to tell the judge he lives there, an eviction will likely occur, Becker says.

“The District of Columbia and New Jersey look good on the books,” said Danilo Pelletiere, research director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “But model legislation doesn’t get you very far if there’s no enforcement.”

A District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruling issued in 1985 in the case of the Administrator of Veterans Affairs v. Joyce Valentine established tenants’ rights in the district. In that case, the appeals court reaffirmed the right of a woman to stay in her apartment after the Veterans Administration took possession of the four-unit building in which she lived.

Twenty-three years later, in the midst of the worst foreclosure crisis in the nation’s history, it has become clear that the district’s law needs more teeth, Becker said. “Mortgagees should be aggressively charged with figuring out if there are any tenants in those properties before they try to proceed with any eviction action,” she said.

One legal aid attorney said judges should more carefully scrutinize eviction cases where a mortgagee is the plaintiff and delay the case until mortgagees provide proof that tenants won’t be displaced. “Judges need to be a little more proactive,” said Jennifer Berger, supervising attorney at the district office-based AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly. “What’s a little extra time if you’re going to save someone from a wrongful eviction?”

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