On a Thursday evening three years ago, Sandra McCutchen found an eviction notice stuck to the door of her Miami rental apartment. The following day, she was in court fighting to get it delayed. The day after that, officers from the Miami-Dade police department forcibly removed her from her home, along with her daughter and six grandchildren, dumping their possessions in the front yard.
"They was at my door to throw me out, and that’s just what they did," says McCutchen, 55, who was then living in a public housing unit. "Grandkids in diapers crying, they threw everything on the lawn."
McCutchen, a single mother, was a bona fide tenant. She had lived peaceably in the house on SW 114th Street for seven years. She was never behind on her rent. But now, unbeknownst to her, the house had fallen into foreclosure and authorities were insisting she move out immediately.
A federal law enacted earlier that same year was designed to protect renters like McCutchen from this very situation. Under the Protecting Tenants Foreclosure Act (PTFA), renters living in homes that land in foreclosure are entitled to stay in their homes until their lease expires or, if they have no lease, for a minimum of 90 days. McCutchen's abrupt eviction, which she described as "an emotional roller coaster" that left her clinically depressed, was a violation of this federal policy.
"You don’t give nobody no one day eviction notice, you know what I'm saying?" she said. "I ain't never heard of that nowhere in my world!"
With the help of Jeffrey Hearne, advocacy director of the Florida-based Tenants’ Rights Project, McCutchen was awarded $5,000 to help cover the cost of damages incurred by the eviction. (Ruined property included a television set, mattresses, and living room furniture left out in the rain.) Hearne also helped her and her family get resituated in nearby public housing, a process that took months.
The federal law that allowed McCutchen to win her case is set to expire in 2014, absent Congressional action, and if it does, experts warn America could see an uptick in homelessness.
Over the past year, the total number of persons experiencing homelessness increased by an average of seven percent across cities, according to a new report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors that looked at major U.S. cities.
The total number of renters -- who, in 2010 made up the majority of households in several of the nation's most populous cities -- has increased by 5.1 million nationally since 2000, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Those numbers are expected to grow, expanding the universe of people vulnerable to these violations.
Larry Rosenthal, executive director of the Goldman School of Public Policy's program on Housing and Urban Policy, said the federal law's short-term status is cause for concern.
"Does it represent a genuine threat?" said Rosenthal of PTFA's expiration date. "The answer is yeah. These specific protections that are now required under federal law would disappear, but," he cautioned, "that doesn't mean that tenants go into an utterly protectionless state. We'd have to look at the state where they live, and sometimes even the city where they live, to analyze what protections they have."
State and municipal laws range from more protective than federal law -- in California, for instance, where rent control regimes have been coupled with a variety of eviction controls to prevent landlords from ousting longtime tenants and driving up rents -- to considerably less protective -- in Montana, for instance, where a fully compliant tenant can be evicted without cause within the month. In some jurisdictions, state and local laws have been interpreted to prevent eviction due solely to a foreclosure. (The National Housing Law Project has a good roundup of laws by state, city and county.)
Paul Langway, a 44-year-old single father fighting to be able to stay in his home in Maryland, has relied on a newly enacted state statute that ensures tenants receive timely communications from their landlord at every stage in the foreclosure process. The law requires owners to keep tenants apprised of details from who owns the rental property after foreclosure, to when it was sold and how to pay the rent. Langway said he had no idea the place he rented in Prince Georges County had fallen into foreclosure until he received a generic eviction notice on his door, addressed to "The Occupant" and telling him to leave.
"It just seems like these companies have a robotic mindset," said Langway, who lives with his two kids, ages 19 and 13. "They're going to get their hands on the property no matter what. There's a procedure that they do and they just do it."
Ronnie Reno, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center, a Maryland-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-and moderate income families, says landlords' failure to notify renters that the property has fallen into foreclosure is commonplace.
Sometimes, Reno says, when landlords default on a mortgage, they simply stop paying the utilities or the real estate taxes and don't repair the leaky roof or fix the broken furnace.
"They're trying to milk as much money out of the property before they lose it," said Reno, who's helping Langway to fight his case. "I'll get these phone calls from tenants who've come to find there's no electricity. That's how they find out their home has fallen into foreclosure. They'll come home and find that the water's stopped working."
The PTFA was introduced at the height of the foreclosure crisis as a short-term measure to help tenants, but the Goldman School's Rosenthal warns that low-income renters are still vulnerable.
"The introduction of these federal laws to either create new federal protections or buttress existing state protections is something that I think was recognized to be necessary because of just how terrible the economy had become and how much real estate was in flux," Rosenthal explained.
But low-income tenants are at risk not just in a down economy, as in 2009 when the PTFA was enacted, but even in very good times.
"Good economies tend to force rent upward," Rosenthal said, "so tenants are at risk of being homeless or spending more of their incomes on rent simply because of the economic environment."