Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Official" Vigilantism

I came across this story on today. In a nutshell, there is a sheriff in Chicago who thinks there are too many foreclosures and will stop evicting "innocent" renters from properties. I can surely empathize with him. It would not be fun to evict people for no fault of their own. But enforcing the law sometimes means doing things that are not pleasant.

I agree that the tenants are not to blame for the foreclosure - in most cases. It's the landlord, after all, who has not paid the mortgage. However, that doesn't mean the tenants are entitled to live there for free. The law is the law and the sheriff should enforce it and kick the tenants out.

From what I can tell, the sheriff's main beef is that tenants are being evicted even if they have paid the rent on time. His justification for refusing to enforce eviction notices is the fact that the banks are not identifying the people living in the property when they issue him the eviction notices, as they should be. OK, maybe the banks should be doing that (although I think it might be rather difficult for them to do so, especially if the bank is located in another state). But by refusing to evict tenants at all, he is also allowing those tenants who do NOT pay their rent to remain in the property for free. He says he is coming across "innocent tenant after innocent tenant" that are being kicked out. Hmm. The last time I checked, it was a judge's or jury's responsibility to determine someone's guilt or innocence, not a sheriff's. And he obviously is taking the tenant at their word. As any landlord can tell you, tenants are known to tell lies now and again when it comes to rent payment matters.

But suppose the banks give the sheriff what he wants and they do start correctly identifying who is living in the building when they give him the eviction notice. This will not change what he has to do. He will still be required to evict the "innocent" tenants. Loan contracts clearly state that if the mortgage is not paid, the bank gets the property, no matter who is living in it. The tenants will still have to be evicted. Sorry, Sheriff. You have to enforce the law, no matter how unpleasant you find it.

As for wanting legislation to protect the tenants, what exactly does he want to see? The property owner go to jail? Well, that's not going to solve anything. The bank still won't get their money if they can't take back the property. First, there is no guarantee that the tenant's rent will even cover the amount of the mortgage in the first place. (If the owner was smart, it would, but in the midst of the real estate bubble, many, many people rented investment properties for less than the mortgage amount, hoping that appreciation would make them money in the long run.) Second, the bank does not want to be in the landlord business, so having the tenants remain in the property and just pay the bank instead is not an option. I'd be interested in knowing exactly what type of legal remedy this sheriff would like to see. I guarantee you it will not be fair to someone.

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