Buried in a housing law signed this week by President Barack Obama are protections that will help thousands of renters stay in their homes — at least for awhile — after their landlord has been foreclosed on.
The law allows tenants to remain in their foreclosed rentals through the end of their lease and then 90 days after that before being forced to vacate by the lender. Renters without leases will have 90 days, a significant improvement over what most received before: almost no notice at all.
"Until this law was enacted, there had been no national protections for any of these households," said Linda Couch, deputy director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "This gives renters time to adjust their lives."
Now, renters like 49-year-old Rittie Brantley have more time in their apartments. Two days before Thanksgiving last year, a bank representative informed Brantley she had to move out of her rented three-bedroom apartment in New Haven, Conn., because the landlord was in foreclosure. Her lease, which expires in June, didn't matter, he told her.
"I had a week to be out," said Brantley, who depends on government aid to help pay the rent. "I don't want to move to a bad neighborhood."
Instead, Brantley took her case to the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.
With the new law, "overnight, she received the right to live there through June and three months after that," said Amy Marx, the attorney who represents Brantley.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates 40 percent of foreclosed properties in the country have renters and the new law could aid tens of thousands of renters.
Before, many renters booted out of foreclosed homes would have to find emergency shelter with family or friends because they have little savings to cover moving costs, first month's rent and a security deposit at another apartment. In the worst cases, some families are forced into shelters for temporary housing.
And they had little recourse. Foreclosures automatically terminate any lease. Only New Jersey and Washington, D.C., had laws honoring leases after foreclosure, according to NLIHC's Couch.
Earlier this year, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stepped up their renter protections, but they only applied to loans the companies held or guaranteed.
"The best we could do before is beg and plead with a bank to get extra time," Marx said.
For their part, lenders applaud the new notice provision, but are unclear when the 90-day clock starts, said Francis Creighton, vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. The foreclosure process can last more than a year, and the law isn't specific on when notice to the tenant must be given.
While Creighton said renters are "blameless" in these situations, honoring their leases could disrupt a foreclosure sale as new owners try to move in. Other times, lenders have no idea renters live in the properties, Creighton said, because the landlords claimed the property was their primary residence, not a rental, to qualify for a lower mortgage rate.
Most banks, in addition, don't have property management departments, so collecting rent, keeping up with renter complaints and maintenance is outside their business.
"If the boiler doesn't work, then they will have to take care of it. Lenders aren't set up to do this," Creighton said.
But Marx hopes this law encourages lenders to keep renters in properties permanently. Banks also will benefit, she said, because they'll receive income, the house will be better maintained and won't be exposed to vandalism. This will help prop up its value too.
Brantley, who has lived in her New Haven rental for almost four years, doesn't want to move even after her reprieve is up in September. She likes her neighbors and her grandchildren have room to play in the front yard. The house is close to the bus line that runs near her daughter's home.
"We're still fearful," she said. "We might be able to stay for a while, but I would like to stay here for longer."