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In late July, Teres McDonald returned to her home in Congress Heights and faced an eviction notice on the front door. She hadn’t seen her landlord since May, and he’d also refused to return calls since then. Now she understood why: The bank had foreclosed on his property, her house.
According to the notice, all the buildings’ residents—McDonald, her husband, her two teenage sons, and two tenants downstairs—had ten days to leave the property, she says.
Soon after, someone connected to the bank came to the house, at 453 Mellon St. SE, offering $1,500 in cash for both families to leave and turn in their keys.
That amount “wouldn’t even be able to help with moving costs,” says McDonald. And where can you find a semi-decent two bedroom in the city for that cost anyway?
Soon, McDonald, her husband, and her downstairs neighbor Norma Hairston started making some calls and trying to figure out their options.
Turns out, they didn’t need to go anywhere. The District has some of the strongest foreclosure-protection laws in the country, according to Joel Cohn, Legislative Director for the Office of the Tenant Advocate.Under D.C. law, there are specific reasons why a tenant can be evicted.
“Those are the exclusive reasons in the District,” says Cohn—and foreclosure isn’t one of them. “They [can] maintain their tenancy on exactly the same terms as before…Tenants have the right to stay as long as they pay rent. They also can demand that the landlord fix any housing code violations.”
From May to July of this year, tenants from ten different foreclosed D.C. properties contacted Cohn’s office asking about their rights.It’s a smart call to make: Banks commonly tell unsuspecting tenants that they have to move out, in violation of D.C. statute, says Cohn. Some tenants seeking legal aid have already left their buildings, and in that case, it’s usually too late do anything.
“The name of the game is getting notice to the bank, which might be ignorant in good faith, though it’s up to the bank’s attorneys to know the local housing laws,” says Cohn. “So, I don’t think there is such a thing as good faith failure to know the law.”
Of course, if you stay in a foreclosed property, you’re likely facing a new hardship: your landlord now manages ATMs as well as your air-conditioning system.
McDonald’s new landlord is IndyMac Federal Bank, which the federal government took control of in July following massive losses from defaulted mortgages.
Downstairs from the McDonalds, Norma Hairston lives with her grandson. She is contending with a major roach and rat infestation problem, and her refrigerator broke months ago, causing her to stock up on food nearly every day.
IndyMac spokesperson Evan Wagner says the bank has every intention of keeping tenants at 453 Mellon Street. Last week for the first time, he saw the eviction letter sent by local law firm, Bierman, Geesing, & Ward, LLC, who handles the bank’s properties in this area.
“I was an unhappy camper,” he says, “I think there’s a better way we can do it. The bank’s goals are not to scare people. We want those people to stay there and keep paying rent.”
So, why exactly did the letter go out in the first place?
“I asked them last week: ‘Why did we put this scary note on people’s doors?’ And they said ‘well because we don’t know who these people are,'” says Wagner. “Lawyers are looking to protect themselves,” he adds, and sometimes its easier to just assume the people living in the building aren’t rightful tenants.
For a while, Hairston just wanted to get some assistance from the bank, and then get out of the property. She’s paying $800 a month for her two-bedroom place. Three months ago, she started looking for a new place, but she couldn’t find anything at that price.
“Everyone is asking for a thousand to two grand a month. That’s not in my budget,” she says. “If I’m going to be paying that money breaking my neck, I need to be in my own house.”
Hairston was on the brink of filing a claim in Landlord and Tenant court, and withholding rent money. Then mid-afternoon last Friday, she received a surprise visit from two workers dropping off a brand new refrigerator and picking up trash.
There’s still plenty of work left to be done. But, Hairston says she’s now giving IndyMac “the benefit of the doubt.” They’ve got a week to make improvements, namely fixing cracks in the wall, plumbing in the bathroom, and old wiring that has left roughly half of the light fixtures non-functional. “If they don’t come, I’m going to have to go downtown.”