The Forgotten Victims 

Tenants of foreclosed properties can face intimidation, bribes, and jacked-up rent to force relocation.

For Tina Marie Williams, it all started one day in late August: "A black SUV pulled up and a guy got out," she recalled. "He looked around for about thirty minutes then taped a piece of paper on my mailbox. That's how I found out the property was going to be auctioned on September 2 at 12 p.m."

Williams is now fighting eviction, the last hold-out renter in a dreary fourplex on 90th Avenue in East Oakland. As the sub-prime mortgage debacle and foreclosures dominate the headlines, less visible is the plight of such renters. When buildings are put up for auction or banks repossess, tenants like Williams are often caught in limbo — abandoned by their landlords, threatened or bribed by Realtors to leave, and faced with the challenge of finding new housing.

East Bay housing organizations are reporting marked increases in calls from desperate renters living in properties facing foreclosure. The East Bay Community Law Center's Housing Specialist Gracie Jones said they got 24 calls in one day recently. On average, they receive about thirty a week.

Often the first tenants hear of a problem is when they get a notice saying the property has been repossessed or is now owned by someone who bought it in auction. Other times, their utilities are turned off because the owner has stopped paying the bills.

Banks, which are often outside of the area, hire local property managers or Realtors to negotiate. But tenant advocates say they often threaten tenants and pressure them to move out.

Berkeley, Hayward, and Oakland have ordinances to protect tenants from being evicted without "just cause." But tenants who don't know their rights can feel frightened by the notices they receive. Some take "cash for keys" offers, even though it may be impossible for them to find a comparable rental.

In Contra Costa County, however, a tenant can be evicted with only thirty days notice following the sale of a property, said Claudia Johnson, managing attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland. Johnson said Legal Aid is getting hundreds of calls from all over the Bay Area by tenants in distress. "Tenants are telling us of owners at risk of foreclosure who are really stressed out and they are taking it out on their tenants by being really mean. They are desperate and are not going through a legal process. And these tenants are often the most vulnerable: the disabled, the elderly, single moms."

In Williams' case, she said her landlord, Sunday John, told her nothing was wrong after the notice was posted. So she continued to pay the $950 monthly rent for her two-bedroom apartment. "He just lied all the way," Williams says. John could not be reached for comment.

The next Williams learned of the matter was when a woman named Sedalia Benton showed up in October and told her neighbor that John no longer owned the property. Benton works for Realty World, which represents the asset management company of the bank that repossessed the property. That string of confusing relationships often leaves tenants not knowing whom to contact or what their relationship is to the property.

When Williams contacted Benton, she said the agent offered her $1,500 if she moved out within ten days. Williams, who lives in the cramped apartment with her husband, two daughters, and one grandchild and works two jobs — seven days a week at one and six at the other — said there was no way she could move out that quickly. When she refused the offer, Benton threatened to start eviction proceedings. But then a couple days later, she made a new offer: $2,686. Still, Williams declined.

"Shortly after that, they turned the water off," Williams said. "My daughter was taking a shower and the water just went off." The water company said the landlord had not paid the bill. By this point, Williams was so stressed out she missed a week of work and was hospitalized at her doctor's insistence, she said.

Williams contacted the Oakland office of the housing advocacy group ACORN. An attorney who works with them, Roxanne Romell, helped her get the water turned back on.

Romell, who is a housing law expert, has a dim view of the local heavies hired to get these foreclosed properties emptied and sold.

Attorney Marc Janowitz of the East Bay Community Law Center also said they are seeing "ridiculous abuses. Tenants are being threatened and harassed by property managers who shout at them, threaten them with eviction, and put their stuff out. Even when they lose, they continue these tactics on other properties," he said, reffering to the banks.

But Realtors also have an unenviable job: To evict tenants and sell the property in a dead housing market. Benton said she was currently working on 25 foreclosed properties in Oakland. The new owners want the properties empty so they are easier to sell, but also so they aren't constrained by rent-control regulations. By law, if the property is vacant, the new buyer can set the rent to whatever they want.

Romell and others, including Oakland city officials, are also beginning to worry about increased urban blight as a result of vacant properties. "I don't know where they think these fictional buyers are going to come from," said Romell. "How long before it is vandalized, and crackheads are smoking in there and taking it over? Neighboring property values go down. ... I don't think the worst has happened yet."

Indeed, Benton had to cut short a phone interview because she said she had to hurry over to an empty duplex in East Oakland where homeless people had moved in. "Somebody changed the locks!" She cited another empty property where the copper piping had been stolen.

Oakland City Attorney John Russo said he is very concerned about blighted properties once tenants are forced to leave. However, there's nothing they can do to pre-emptively avoid blight. The challenge of the city's building department is to find the responsible person or agency to keep up the property and make sure it is not illegally occupied.

Meanwhile, some tenants are seeing their rents raised to astronomical proportions to force them out. Take Tina Burton, 31, who lives on Capistrano Drive in Oakland with her husband and four kids in a two-bedroom house. Their rent is $750.

Initially, her bank's representative, Equity Capital of Alameda, offered her about a month's rent to move out. When she declined, they upped the offer to $6,300 — to be paid once she moved out. But when she asked for the terms in writing they refused. Equity Capital declined to answer questions, directing this reporter to their attorney, who did not return calls.

In September, Burton received a notice to vacate the property, otherwise her rent was being increased to a jaw-dropping $10,000 a month. By this point, Burton said, "They were constantly harassing me, calling and asking me, 'What are you going to do?' sending me notices, taking pictures outside of the house."

On December 1, they sent her a notice to pay $20,000 — $10,000 for two months — or move out. She was served with a three-day notice to pay or quit. But nothing has happened since, so she continues to wait.

Burton may have a harder time staying put, however, because single-family homes are exempt from rent-control protection, according to Jaimee Arnone Modica, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. So if a new owner raises the rent to an amount higher than the tenant can pay — and are given sixty days notice of the increase — the tenant is faced with paying or leaving.

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