One of the most pernicious effects of the mortgage crisis has been the eviction of blameless tenants. Leases are usually terminated by foreclosure. Tenants who have never missed a rent payment, and who have no idea that their landlord has not been applying rent payments to their mortgage obligations, suddenly face eviction — often with no notice.
It is difficult to overstate the trauma of the eviction. Tenants are not only turned out into the streets. Often their personal property is put on the curb or thrown into dumpsters. They don’t just lose their homes — they can lose everything they own. Passing rainstorms or scavengers can turn a lifetime’s worth of work into nothing. Children in particular can be traumitized by seeing parents rendered powerless, by losing their possessions, and by the fear of the unknown. Violence is a constant threat.
The problem is so pervasive, and so normatively objectionable, that county sheriffs upon whom the burden of eviction falls have been refusing to carry out the evictions under some circumstances. Most famously, Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, unilaterally imposed a moratorium on the eviction of renters in foreclosed properties, over the howling objections of the banks.
I have written previously, and am writing still, about what happens when legal institutions face a divergence between the legality and social acceptability of behavior. Generally, institutions of enforcement don’t enforce the law; they enforce the limits of acceptable deviance around the law (think speed limits). When they are called upon to enforce the law in a manner that conflicts with standards of social acceptability, it is often the institutions that give way rather than the standards.
It is heartening, therefore, but not entirely surprising, to see that the now re-nationalized Fannie Mae has decided to stop evicting tenants in foreclosed properties.
Fannie Mae has urged private mortgage holders to follow suit, but has met with little enthusiasm. Banks don’t want to become property managers. They want to sell foreclosed properties as quickly and cleanly as possible.
But the question we should be asking is, between the lender and the tenant, who should bear the risk that a rental property will be foreclosed upon?