Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. yesterday launched an investigation aimed at protecting the rights of the "forgotten victims" of the housing market collapse -- the tens of thousands of tenants facing eviction from buildings that have been foreclosed by banks.
"Tenants who live in properties in foreclosure are the forgotten victims of the collapse of the housing market," Brown said. "We'll fight every step of the way to ensure they aren't rousted from their homes in violation of the law."
As a part of his investigation, Brown sent letters to 24 banks, loan servicers, private investors, and law firms demanding information about whether they are complying with federal, state, and local laws regarding foreclosed properties and their treatment of tenants.
More than 20 housing rights and public interest groups from across California have petitioned the Attorney General to take action, citing a "pattern of illegal conduct" and tenant harassment by banks, real estate agents and lawyers attempting to speed up evictions so that foreclosed properties can be sold.
More than one-third of all California residential units in foreclosure are rentals, according to tenants' rights groups, and more than 200,000 California tenants have been uprooted from their homes during the housing crisis.
Since March 2009, Tenants Together, a statewide tenants' rights organization, has assisted 3,000 tenants involved in foreclosures. The group cited many examples of abusive tactics by banks and their representatives in foreclosure situations, including intimidation, threats and misrepresentations. One case involved a Chula Vista tenant who found a chilling letter posted on his door indicating the property was "being monitored." A Dublin tenant found a note on his door saying the locks on his unit had been changed and giving a contact if he wished to claim "personal property" left inside.
In his letter, Brown requires banks, loan servicers, private investors and law firms to provide information by July 19 about their policies and procedures when dealing with foreclosed properties and current tenants. It specifically asks the recipients to outline how they "promote or preserve tenancies after foreclosure".
In May 2009, the federal government enacted the "Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act" giving tenants new protections, such as the right to stay in their homes for at least 90 days after receiving an eviction notice. While state and local laws also contain strong protections, unlawful evictions and harassment of tenants continue.
Tenants should know their rights under the law. These rights include:
- Tenants cannot be required to move out of their homes for at least 90 days following an eviction notice.
- Tenants can insist on staying until the end of their leases. The only exception occurs when the new owner of a single-family home wants to move in.
- Tenants can require banks and their agents to put all communication in writing.
- Tenants are not obliged to accept "cash for keys" money to move out sooner than the law prescribes.
- Harassment, such as improper entry into a person's home, shutting off water and lights, or changing the locks without a court order is illegal.
- The above rights extend to tenants living in government-subsidized Section 8 housing, who may also have additional protections under state and local laws.
- If a city has a just cause for eviction law, a landlord must have a specific reason to evict a tenant, and foreclosure may not be recognized as a legitimate basis for eviction. Tenants should check local ordinances.
Sixteen cities in California have just cause for eviction ordinances: Berkeley, Beverly Hills, East Palo Alto, Glendale, Hayward, Los Angeles, Maywood, Oakland, Palm Springs, Richmond, Ridgecrest, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, and West Hollywood.
Brown's office has fought for Californians' rights during the housing crisis by shutting down loan modification scams and other illegal mortgage practices.
In a statement, Brown's office said the public can learn more about these actions by logging on to the Website: http://ag.ca.gov/loanmod/. The statement also urged tenants who think their rights have been violated and want to file a complaint to contact the Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit at http://ag.ca.gov/consumers/general.php.