CHICAGO – The sheriff here said Wednesday that he's ordering his deputies to stop evicting people from foreclosed properties because many people his office has helped throw out on the street are renters who did nothing wrong.
"We will no longer be a party to something that's so unjust," a visibly angry Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said at a news conference.
"We have to be sure that when we are doing this — and we are destroying some people's lives — we better be darned sure we're talking about the right people," Dart said.
Dart said he believes he's the first sheriff in a major metropolitan area to stop participating in foreclosure evictions, and the publisher of a national foreclosure database said he's probably right.
"I haven't heard of any other sheriff unilaterally deciding to stop foreclosures," said Rick Sharga, senior vice president of the Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac, Inc. He said the sheriff in Philadelphia helped push a moratorium on foreclosure sales, but that involved owner-occupied homes and not renters.
Dart said that from now on, banks will have to present his office with a court affidavit that proves the home's occupant is either the owner or has been properly notified of the foreclosure proceedings.
Illinois law requires that renters be notified that their residence is in foreclosure and they will be evicted in 120 days, but Dart indicated that the law has been routinely ignored.
He talked about tenants who dutifully pay their rent, then leave one morning for work only to have authorities evict them and put their belongings on the curb while they are gone.
By the time they get home, "The meager possessions they have are gone," he said. "This is happening too often."
In many cases, he said, tenants aren't even aware that their homes have fallen into foreclosure.
This week, an attorney asked that Dart be held in contempt when his deputies did not evict tenants after determining they were not the owners and did not know about their landlord's financial problems.
A judge denied the attorney's request, Dart's office said, and Dart said that after talking to the Cook County state's attorney's office, he is confident he is on solid legal ground.
"My job as sheriff is to follow court orders, absolutely," he said. "But I'm also in charge of making sure justice is being done here and it is clear that justice is not being done here."
The state's attorney's office said it would not comment on conversations with Dart because his office is a client.
Foreclosures have skyrocketed around the country in recent months and Dart said the number of foreclosure evictions in Cook County could more than double from the 2006 tally of 1,771. This year the county is on pace to see 4,500 such evictions, he said.
Dart warned that because the eviction process on foreclosures can take more than a year, the number is sure to climb even higher.
"From all the numbers we have seen, we know (they) are going to be exploding," he said.
Sharga said there are more than 1 million U.S. homes in foreclosure — with about a third of that number occupied by someone other than the owner.
"That number will continue to get bigger," he said.
Dart said he believes banks are not doing basic research to determine that the people being evicted are, in fact, the homeowners.
He said that in a third of the 400 to 500 foreclosure evictions his deputies had been carrying out every month, the residents are not those whose names are on the eviction papers.
Nor, he said, are banks notifying tenants that the homes they're renting are in foreclosure. He added that when banks do learn the correct names of those living on foreclosed-upon property, their names often are simply added to eviction papers.
"They just go out and get an order the next day and throw these people's names on there," Dart said. "Whether they (tenants) have been notified, God only knows."
Evictions for nonpayment of rent will continue, Dart said, explaining that those cases already have gone to court, his office is confident the people being evicted are who the landlord says they are, and there is no question the tenants are aware of what is going on.
Dart said it's only fair for banks to give occupants of a foreclosed property adequate notice before forcing them out.
"You are talking about a lot of people in rental situations living paycheck to paycheck," he said. "To think they are sitting on a pool of money for an up-front deposit, security deposit, is foolishness."