by Daniel Shoer Roth
April 13th, 2010
All she had was 48 hours to clear out her belongings and vacate the house where she had lived for three years.
One day last September, Gladys Flores received an unexpected visit from the owner of the property she rented in Little Havana. She had not seen him for months. Flores had religiously deposited the $600 monthly rent. The landlord came to inform her that the house had been repossessed by the bank.
``He told us, `Either I call the police and you take everything out or I put a lock on the door so you cannot get in,' '' recalled Flores, a 53-year-old Peruvian immigrant who lives with her husband and makes a living as a housekeeper.
The Flores had no money to rent a moving truck, so they took all their possessions -- in a shopping cart -- and left in fear, without filing a complaint with authorities.
Since the onset of the foreclosure crisis, tens of thousands of renters in South Florida have suffered the fate of the Floreses. They have been tossed out by banks and landlords essentially overnight with no mercy, and without any protection from the state of Florida.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 40 percent of the households that lose their homes to foreclosure are renters. It stands to reason that in the city of Miami, where 64 percent of homes are rentals and there are 25,000 foreclosures in process, the proportion is much higher.
Not surprisingly, Miami and other municipalities in South Florida are among the cities where the most violations of the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama last year, are happening. The provisions phase out at the end of 2012.
``The law in general is being deliberately ignored,'' said Purvi Shah, a Florida Legal Services attorney who heads the Community Justice Project. ``The judicial sector must do its part to ensure compliance with these federal laws.''
Under the act, tenants who have an oral or written lease arrangement are entitled to remain in the repossessed home until the end of their lease, unless the purchaser at foreclosure plans to make the property his or her primary residence. Even in this situation or if the tenants have no lease, the purchaser must deliver a 90-day notice to vacate.
But the majority of banks, mortgage companies, real estate agents and foreclosure attorneys in South Florida continue to evict tenants within a matter of days, leaving them, literally, on the street, grass-roots organizations have told me. And the courts have done little to stop them.
One of the main obstacles is that most of the tenants -- who in general are immigrants and low-income individuals -- are unaware of these new laws and believe they must leave the moment the landlord or a bank agent knocks on the door with news of the foreclosure.
Many of these agents are adept at intimidating tenants. They manipulate them with offers of small amounts of cash for the keys, but later never refund the security deposit.
IN THE DARK
For the majority of residents who have no knowledge of the market nor access to real estate advice, it is difficult to know if the property they are renting is actually in foreclosure. Owners take advantage of their ignorance and squeeze out every last penny before losing the house. During the process, no improvements or repairs are made, leaving the homes to deteriorate. I have heard of cases where tenants have had no running water for several weeks.
Florida is one of the states with the fewest protections for tenants. The landlords do not need just cause to evict and, if the contract is month-to-month, a 15-day notice letter is sufficient to get them out.
In Tallahassee, lawmakers are currently debating two bills that would create a state counterpart to federal laws protecting tenants in foreclosure. In addition, the proposed legislation would hold banks accountable for returning security deposits to tenants in foreclosure properties and provide a readily understood form letter with the 90-day notice of intention to evict.
This is not the first time the state Legislature has tried to enact such laws. Justice would be served if Florida lawmakers were to take, for once, the side of the weak.
We are so used to putting home ownership on a pedestal that we often forget that renters are a large part of our community.
Just listen to Flores' plight: ``All I ask is that they have more humanity with us.''