A lender foreclosure sign is seen in front of a house, Thursday, July 24, 2008, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Sales of existing homes fell more sharply than expected in June as the housing industry continued to be bruised by the worst slump in more than two decades. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
MIAMI (AP) -- Tita Mendoza and her husband moved into their Miami Beach condo in June and have been dutifully paying the $1,800 rent on time every month. And yet, they could be evicted any day now.
Last month, the Mendozas were served with court papers notifying them that their landlord was being foreclosed on, meaning the couple could be turned out on the street.
"It's unbelievable to me that people could be so irresponsible," said Mendoza, who moved to Miami Beach from Chicago, where the couple had owned a home. "We're just waiting to see what happens next."
Across the country, thousands of renters have become innocent victims of the mortgage crisis: They have been forced to move because the owner of the property was in foreclosure. Security deposits have been lost and lives turned upside-down as people scramble to find a new place to live on short notice.
A few states recently passed or proposed laws to protect renters by requiring mortgage holders to provide sufficient notice for tenants living in foreclosed properties. Sheriffs in Illinois and Michigan also have stepped in to help.
"It's a huge issue, and it's one that until recently has flown under the radar," said Danilo Pelletiere, research director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Renters haven't been addressed by some localities because they have been focusing on homeowners."
Almost 15 million renters, or 40 percent of all renters, live in single-family homes, townhouses, condos or duplexes, according to Census data. While there are no national figures on foreclosure-related evictions, these types of rental properties have been vulnerable to foreclosure because they tend to be owned by small investors.
According to RealtyTrac, about one-third of the 378,250 properties with valid mailing addresses that were in default or waiting for a foreclosure sale in May were not occupied by the owner. That would indicate they are investment properties or rentals.
Last week, Tom Dart, the sheriff in Chicago's Cook County, drew the ire of landlords and lenders everywhere when he announced he would no longer send his deputies on court-ordered foreclosure evictions because many of the people being turned out on the street were tenants who had faithfully paid the rent.
(On Thursday, Dart announced that his deputies will resume taking part in foreclosure evictions next week, but only with stringent legal safeguards worked out with the courts. Among other things, a bank that is foreclosing on a property must prove it informed all tenants of a state-mandated grace period designed to allow them to look for new housing.)
In Michigan, Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell put a two-week moratorium into effect Monday on evicting renters living in foreclosed homes.
"My sheriff doesn't wring his hands and gnash his teeth very long," said Undersheriff James Gage. "He looks at the situation, sees it's wrong and takes action."
And last week, Ohio state Reps. Ted Celeste and Mike Foley, both Democrats, proposed the Ohio Renter's Protection Act. The law would require landlords to tell potential tenants if the rental property is in foreclosure and notify current tenants of a foreclosure within 30 days of the filing. The bill also calls for 30-day notice to the tenant before a sheriff's sale. It could reach a vote by the end of the year.
"You want to protect the tenant to the degree that they have some notice, should there be a need to have them leave," Celeste said.
In July, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law giving a tenant 60 days to leave a rental housing unit after the property is sold in foreclosure.
Illinois passed a measure in August that calls for 90 days' notice before an eviction takes place - a law that apparently was not being followed too closely because Dart told a judge that his deputies were often evicting renters who had not been given proper notification.
When it comes to tenant laws and renter's rights, each state has its own rules, and each state legislature is free to add further protections for tenants.
But there are no state or local laws in Miami to prevent the eviction of the Mendozas. They have asked a real estate agent to start planning for that possibility.
Other states - Indiana, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington - considered bills strengthening tenants' rights in foreclosures, but they apparently died in their legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Michigan, a bill was introduced to require landlords to notify tenants at least 30 days before a property is put up for auction. But the measure has been in committee since last December.
Renters can forget help from the federal government, at least for now. The National Low Income Housing Coalition tried to get the government to spend $200 million for relocation assistance for renters who lose their homes to foreclosure, but the request didn't make it into the big bailout of the financial industry.
Sheila Crowley, the coalition's president, said she will continue to press the issue: "If we spent $700 billion, can't we spend a chintzy $200 million?"
Associated Press Writer Damian Grass contributed to this report.