Although the plight of homeowners affected by the real estate meltdown has been well-documented, renters have mostly fallen under the radar. Recently passed national legislation includes some renter protections, but tenant advocacy groups charge that the new law only scratches the surface.
The number of renters being forced from their homes is on the rise. In some parts of the country, the figures rise dramatically.
“We’ve seen a mass increase. I would say it’s up by 50 percent,” said Arlene Bradley, housing advocacy director of Housing Rights Inc. in Berkeley, Calif., a group that provides legal advice and counseling to renters in the greater San Francisco Bay area.
Prior to the new legislation that went into effect last month, tenants were at the mercy of the lender, and the results could be very disruptive. Renters could be forced from their homes with a mere five days’ notice in the state of Arizona, said William Deegan, executive director of the Phoenix-based American Tenants Association.
Under the new rule, which was passed May 20 and took effect immediately, an addendum to a broader housing bill addressing the foreclosure crisis, a lender who takes possession of a property or a new owner who buys the building at auction has to let a tenant stay for 90 days or until their lease is up. The rules are a bit different if someone is buying the property to live in; in that case, they can terminate a lease with 90 days’ notice. “This guarantees 90 days,” said Ed Josephson, director of litigation for South Brooklyn Legal Services in New York. “Before the law they could throw you out in the middle of your lease.”
While those who work with renters across the country say the legislation is a vast improvement over the earlier status quo, they also call the law incomplete. Too often, renters are at the mercy of courts and a financial system ill-equipped to deal with their particular challenges. For one thing, a tenant is still more likely than not to lose his or her security deposit if the owner goes into foreclosure.
“The problem is the bank isn’t interested in dealing with you and the old owner is long gone,” said Janet Portland, lawyer and author of Every Tenant’s Legal Guide. While a tenant can take a landlord to small claims court, if they’ve declared bankruptcy — which is common — the renter is probably out of luck when it comes to collecting on a judgment.
The ATA’s William Deegan said this is particularly troubling because renters are more likely to need that deposit when they go looking for a new place to live. “Tenants tend to be poor, young families, the elderly. They fall through the cracks.” Deegan wants a law that would order property owners to put security deposits in escrow and not co-mingle them in an account that can be bled dry.
Another issue is that of property maintenance; too often, renter advocates say, owners let cleanliness and even safety standards lapse, and the banks who tend to inherit the properties aren’t usually equipped to deal with these pressing needs. “Properties often go unmaintained,” said Arlene Bradley of Housing Rights Inc. “That’s an area that’s largely being left to state and local governments to deal with regarding local code enforcement. That’s a big gap right now.”
“If you feel the place is getting shabby but not unsafe, you’re pretty much stuck,” said Portland. While there is currently no requirement at the federal level for banks that take on foreclosed residential buildings to hire property managers, some say this is a necessary next step, especially because the number of large, corporate-owned apartment buildings in foreclosure is expected to rise as the commercial real estate market worsens.
Right now, most of the people uprooted by foreclosure are in duplexes, triplexes or other small-scale lodgings. Often, the home that is foreclosed on is the landlord’s place of residence, too. If larger properties start to fall, this means that potentially hundreds or even thousands of renters could be living in places that are owned by a bank or speculator who picked up the property for a rock-bottom price at an auction.
“This is the beginning of a wave,” said Ed Josephson of South Brooklyn Legal Services. In big cities like New York, many owners bought buildings when prices were at their peak and now can’t make their payments due to falling rents and can’t refinance because no credit is available. “You have a whole parallel world of multi-family crisis,” he said.
Legislating additional tenant protections is a tightrope walk, though. Although the 90-days’ notice provision passed through Congress successfully, other efforts have been challenged. Last month, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) added an amendment to a housing crisis bill that would have let the government step in, take over troubled apartment buildings and convert them to affordable housing. This move drew fire from the National Multi Housing Council, a trade group representing apartment building owners and developers.
Giving government the power to seize ownership of properties would choke off what little funding there is trickling into the market, charges Jim Arbury, senior vice president of the National Multi Housing Council. “There were no specifics regarding what would constitute over-leveraging of a property,” he said, which would make lenders and developers reluctant to invest.
But there are 95 million renters in America, said Deegan, and they need more legal protection than the corporations that actually own their places of residence. “When you look at this whole economic turmoil, everyone’s jumping through hoops to help homeowners and nobody’s dong anything for tenants,” he said.