Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The People's Sheriff Of Chicago

I loved this story of victimized Hispanics getting help:
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, like his counterparts across the nation, has been evicting people from their homes in ever increasing numbers. ... But on October 8 Dart stood before TV cameras and said he'd had enough. Criticizing banks and mortgage companies as heartless, careless and taking advantage of taxpayers, he suspended all mortgage foreclosure evictions.

...In a recent interview Dart said that over the summer he'd become aware that the eviction orders increasingly lacked evidence of the due diligence the banks were supposed to perform. In one instance, he said, his deputies arrived to evict residents from a building that no longer existed, and in other cases they found residents had documents showing they were rightfully in the house. "It was a disaster," he said. "Just complete chaos out there."

The tipping point came with the crisis at 4914-16 North Spaulding, an apartment building full of Hispanic immigrant families in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood. Mihail Stancu, a Romanian immigrant, had purchased the building in October 2006 under the guise of MKST Enterprises.... According to City of Chicago senior assistant corporation counsel Steven McKenzie, Stancu's corporation sold the seven units as seven condos, the buyer being Stancu himself, who'd borrowed from seven lenders. Stancu was then in possession of a lot of cash and a lot of debt, and according to McKenzie the Romanian simply abandoned the latter, pocketing as much as $1.2 million, after which he disappeared. McKenzie, who has filed charges against Stancu, reports that the fugitive has been spotted in Spain and Romania.

Stancu had regularly collected rents from his tenants, but the collections stopped after about a year. Unable to reach the owner, tenant Esteban Cruz, an immigrant landscaper and gardener, began collecting the rents, paying for repairs and utilities, and depositing the remainder into a bank account belonging to Stancu. None of the tenants were particularly worried until May 28 of last year, when what seemed to be an eviction notice was posted on the front door and on the mailboxes of all the units. A second threatening notice followed shortly thereafter. Cruz brought the paperwork to the offices of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. APNC recognized the notices as bank-generated, not court-generated, discovered the condominium ruse and laid out the problem before a housing court judge. The judge recognized that the best course was to put the building into receivership and try to find a single buyer who would convert the condos back into affordable rental housing. Armed with that decision, the tenants should have been safe.

But the eviction threats continued. A locksmith arrived and told one family they had thirty minutes to vacate. APNC organizer Emily Burns fended him off. Not long thereafter, Sheriff Dart's deputies pounded on the door of apartment 1A, demanding entry, armed with eviction papers. They left after finding the family was not listed on their papers, but according to Burns, they said they'd be back in a week to put the family out. Alma Aquino, who works as a cashier at a restaurant in the Loop, says she went to work every morning afraid that her family's possessions would be at the curb when she got home. Her parents, visiting from Mexico, asked what they should do if the deputies came back. "I say, 'Just don't open the door, and call the police.' But my father said, 'They are the police.'"

The APNC decided the sheriff was the problem, and on August 13 the council staged a protest rally in Daley Plaza, denouncing the sheriff, after which APNC board member Diane Limas and six of the Spaulding tenants, including two children, walked into Dart's office asking for a meeting. Three of Dart's aides sat down with the delegates and promised to investigate. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Patterson recalls that within about two days of the protest, Dart said, "You know, these people are right."

On October 8, with the APNC's Burns and Limas in attendance, Dart announced he was suspending mortgage foreclosure evictions.

"These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not people, and don't care who's in the building," Dart said. "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."

...In the wake of his announcement, Dart sat down with the chief judge of the Chancery Court and worked out new procedures; the suspension ended ten days after it began. Dart, however, is still receiving paperwork filed before the new procedures were imposed, so he has continued to reject orders. Between October 20 and January 13, he received 232 requests for eviction, and he performed twenty-four. Part of his slow pace can be explained by the annual holiday moratorium on evictions and by cold weather (if it's fifteen degrees or colder at 6 am at O'Hare Airport, no evictions take place). But it also appears that Dart, enjoying the camaraderie of the Joad camp, has no great enthusiasm for getting back up to speed.

...In the meantime, the Spaulding tenants have continued to receive threatening notices from banks and their agents. By mid-January, eleven such notices had been posted. But Jack Markowski, president of the Community Investment Corporation and the receiver appointed to administer the building, thinks the residents will be able to stay for years to come.

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