In October of 2008, with Cook County on pace to conduct a record number of evictions due to mortgage foreclosures, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart made the bold move of suspending all foreclosure evictions in Cook County. The moratorium—which garnered wide-spread national attention and launched Cook County and Sheriff Dart to the center of the foreclosure eviction discussion—came after numerous instances of evictions that involved paying renters whose landlords had failed to make mortgage payments sending the building into foreclosure, and resulting in unfair tenant evictions. Recognizing the human aspects of such evictions prompted Sheriff Dart to halt all mortgage foreclosure evictions and demand sweeping reforms and legislation changes that would protect the law-abiding tenants.
“These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not people, and don’t care who’s in the building,” Dart said at the time of the 2008 moratorium. “They simply want their money and don’t care who gets hurt along the way. On top of it all, they want taxpayers to fund their investigative work for them. We’re not going to do their jobs for them anymore. We’re just not going to evict innocent tenants. It stops today.”
The moratorium ultimately resulted in new requirements in Cook County for lenders to attest they provided proper notice to tenants before they can file a foreclosure action. It also led to a new three-step notification process for every property where the Sheriff is ordered to conduct a foreclosure eviction, further ensuring renters would not be unfairly removed from their homes due to their landlord’s foreclosure status. Additionally, the Sheriff hired a social worker to provide outreach and assistance to anyone facing eviction; a first-of-its kind position and critical in pairing citizens with crucial social services.
The following month, Sheriff Dart testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about the importance of protecting families in financial crisis and called for support of legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) that would allow bankruptcy judges to reduce principal amounts on mortgages to help families facing foreclosure save their homes. In addition to asking that Durbin’s bill be re-introduced, Sheriff Dart also voiced support for the effort by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others to investigate and possibly penalize those lenders found to have skirted laws before filing a foreclosure.
Two years after his initial moratorium, Sheriff Dart was again at the forefront of the mortgage foreclosure crisis when he instituted another moratorium on such evictions. This moratorium came on the heels of both the Sheriff’s Office noticing irregularities and the nation’s largest mortgage lenders publically admitting to questionable “robo-signing” practices in their mortgage foreclosure actions. At the time, Sheriff Dart sent notice to attorneys for Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and GMAC/Ally Financial requesting they provide an affidavit affirming any foreclosures they had filed in Cook County had been properly processed in accordance with Illinois law, and the halt in evictions was instituted as a means to give them time to properly respond. None of the banks chose to respond, and the moratorium continued on for over a month until the Sheriff was ordered to resume evictions by two prosecutorial opinions stating he was legally bound to carry out foreclosure eviction orders signed by a judge.
Despite the order to resume, in November 2010, Sheriff Dart proceeded in his efforts to address robo-signing. An initial review of foreclosure files was conducted by Cook County Sheriff’s Office staff and revealed the pervasiveness of robo-signing within the Cook County courts system. In response to these findings, the Sheriff took criminal action and opened numerous investigations into local robo-signings.
Sheriff Dart did not stop his advocacy for the unfair practices there. Recognizing that the Sheriff’s Office generally comes into the foreclosure eviction process at the tail end of years-long legal proceedings, the Sheriff vowed to continue to proactively ensure that all law-abiding citizens’ rights were being looked after in the entire process. Continued research and open dialogue with community groups such as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council opened the Sheriff’s eyes to the continued need for additional renter’s advocacy actions.
Today, by joining forces with the Keep Chicago Renting Coalition on their proposed City of Chicago ordinance, Sheriff Dart hopes to see that thousands of up-to-date renters will no longer be punished and forced to seek new housing simply because of their landlord’s inability to keep the property. Currently being developed for introduction to the Chicago City Council, the ordinance will extend renter protections from the time properties become Real Estate Owned until the property is sold to a third-party purchaser. The ordinance will also ensure that foreclosing owners act as responsible landlords by imposing penalties for violating laws aimed at protecting renters, and will put in place notice requirements compelling foreclosing owners to keep buildings occupied rather than boarded up and vacant.
“I’ve said it before and I will say it again, law-abiding citizens need every protection we can afford them, especially in the volatile climate of greed, mismanagement and broken promises made by countless lenders that has become the unfortunate reality,” Sheriff Dart said today. “My hope is that through continued partnership and aggressive advocacy we will see that no family is displaced unnecessarily, and that our neighborhoods will enjoy fewer boarded-up vacant properties and greater community stability.”
Sheriff Dart plans to extend the Keep Chicago Renting Coalition’s ordinance efforts to all of Cook County through the proposal of a similar ordinance at an early-summer 2012 Cook County County Board meeting.
These efforts need your support! Grassroots groups like the Albany Park Neighborhood Council and the Keep Chicago Renting Coalition NEED citizen advocay to help make these crucial proposals a reality! Together, through tireless work, we'll make sure families get the support they need and we will see our neigborhoods rebound from the messes left behind by the banking industry's foreclosure crisis.