More Maryland renters caught amid foreclosure

Lenders and agents are seeking rapid evictions despite new state and federal laws passed to protect tenants

  • Marjorie Benedum, 62, and husband, Mel Harris, 79, returned to their rental home in Southwest Baltimore on Dec. 6 and found a sheriff's notice on the door: Get out in 10 days or be evicted. "We weren't sure what we were going to do," she said.
Marjorie Benedum, 62, and husband, Mel Harris, 79, returned… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
December 30, 2009|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

Marjorie Benedum and her husband, Mel Harris, knew their landlord was facing foreclosure but were reassured when he said they could keep renting the Southwest Baltimore house after his family lost it.

Then Harris, who is 79 and retired, came home from church three weeks ago to find a sheriff's notice on the door. Get out in 10 days, it said, or be evicted.

"We weren't sure what we were going to do," recalled Benedum, 62.

More and more renters have been caught up in the national foreclosure crisis, and lenders taking back those homes nearly always want them gone. That has proved tremendously disruptive for the tenants, despite state and federal laws enacted in May to try to ease the pain.

Maryland law requires that lenders notify renters before foreclosing on landlords, but - as was the case for Benedum and Harris - the letters do not always get into the right hands.

Federal law requires that lenders or auction buyers taking possession of foreclosures give tenants at least 90 days' notice before requiring them to leave, and longer in some cases - but too often that is not happening, advocates say.

"There's just a very severe lack of understanding of the rights that renters have," said Matt Hill, staff attorney at the nonprofit Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which has been focusing on the issue. "We really have to get the word out. People can be easily confused and misled."

Foreclosure might seem like a homeowner problem. But in the wake of the bursting of the real estate bubble and the lax lending practices that helped cause it, a great deal of collateral damage has been done to people who have no mortgage.

In Baltimore alone, 1,900 of the approximately 5,000 properties that started the foreclosure process during the 12 months that ended June 30 were occupied by renters, according to the Baltimore Homeownership Preservation Coalition. That is nearly 40 percent. Each case represents at least one person faced with an unplanned move, probably without getting a security deposit back.

A state hot line for renters whose landlords are in foreclosure, set up in mid-May, has averaged nearly 600 calls a month - without any marketing. The number, 877-775-0357, is included in the letter that lenders must send to Maryland homes whose owners are in default. Operators provide the numbers of legal aid groups and point callers toward the state's apartment listing site, MDHousingSearch.org.

"In June, it was like somebody turned on a faucet," said Bill Ariano, deputy director of the Community Development Administration at the state Department of Housing and Community Development. "This wasn't a slow ramp-up."

Some tenants, by not paying their rent, are contributing to their landlords' foreclosure. But nine out of 10 renters who have called the state hot line said they were not behind on rent, and most said they had never been behind. The preceding rise in home prices drew a lot of inexperienced landlords into the metro area - the city in particular - as well as buyers who became accidental landlords when the housing slump foiled their plans to sell.

"The majority of the calls we get, they paid their landlord, they have proof they paid their landlord, and they're upset because the landlord didn't take care of their mortgage," said Stephanie D. Cornish, program manager for the tenant-landlord counseling department at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.

Benedum moved into her rental house in 2000. The owner who lost it to foreclosure bought it in 2005, refinancing about two years later for $57,000 more than the original mortgage. Benedum, who does computer-input work, said she paid the rent faithfully until the eviction notice.

"We've gotten caught in the middle of all this, not knowing we were absolutely going to have to move," she said.

She and her husband should have received notices from the lender, including one giving more warning of the impending eviction, but Benedum says they didn't. The house is split into two rentals with two mailboxes, which could explain why.

With just 10 days to pack and find new lodgings, Benedum feared they would end up at a hotel. "With our five cats," she said, "that would go over real well."

Benedum called every place she could think of to request help, finally getting some when she reached the Public Justice Center. Hill, an attorney who works full time on tenant matters, filed an emergency motion in Baltimore Circuit Court to try to get the couple more time.

"They're still entitled to a 90-day notice to vacate, and they never received that," Hill said.

He was prepared to argue that in court, expecting a battle over legal interpretation because the lender foreclosed before the federal law took effect and the sale was ratified afterward. But two weeks ago - two days before the scheduled eviction - the lender agreed to give Benedum and her husband until Feb. 1 to move out.

It was such a relief.

"What a difference," said Harris.

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