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6-16-consumer-topRISMEDIA, June 16, 2009-(MCT)-When Joe Isserles moved his wife and four sons, one of whom is comatose, into a rental home in Davenport, Fla., earlier this year, the landlord failed to mention that the house was in the final stages of foreclosure. Soon after they paid $1,200 rent for April, there was a knock on the door.

“It was a representative from Coldwell Banker representing Chase Bank, saying the bank took over the loan because the homeowners hadn’t paid the mortgage in a year,” Isserles said. “The next morning, the sheriff showed up to padlock us out.”

The Isserleses are among countless renters across the country who have become unwitting victims of foreclosure – paying rent to landlords who pocket the rent money rather than use it to pay the mortgage. The houses go into foreclosure, and evicted tenants are left scrambling for a home.

No one has tracked the number of renters affected by the continuing wave of foreclosures, but research companies such as RealtyTrac Inc. and other groups estimate that 20% to 40% of all foreclosed homes are not occupied by the owner. Some of those may be vacant or seasonal, but many are likely rentals. And experts say the proportion is likely higher in Florida, which also has one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.

The state is home to one of every six loan defaults in the country, according to California-based RealtyTrac, with 119,200 foreclosure-related court filings during the first quarter alone.

“Renters are losing their homes,” said Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a nonprofit group that represents California renters. Florida has no such organization. “They may not be as sympathetic of victims as homeowners, because they are not losing equity. But they are generally paying rent, losing deposits, forced out on short notice and treated unfairly by banks.”

Unlike defaulting homeowners, renters don’t see the eviction notices coming.

Muffet Robinson, spokeswoman for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, said she returned one day last year to the Seminole County condominium unit she was renting only to find a foreclosure notice on the door. She learned that, even though she was paying her full rent on time, the landlord had not used it to pay the mortgage.

“I didn’t really understand that, because that didn’t really seem honest to me,” said Robinson, who struggled to find another apartment on short notice. “It’s hard enough to move when you’re planning on it.”

Picking up and moving quickly can be particularly difficult for a family such as the Isserleses. Tristen Isserles has been comatose since nearly drowning in a swimming-pool accident in September 2007, when he was 14 months old. Taking him to Easter Sunday church services required briefly unhooking him from ventilators, loading him in the family’s sport utility vehicle and carting him into the congregation in a Radio Flyer-style wagon.

To permanently relocate him and all of the medical equipment he needs to survive is even more challenging. When his parents were not working jobs as a resort concierge and a time-share marketer, they were scouring neighborhoods from Davenport north to Clermont to find another place.

The upheaval could have been avoided if the landlord had told them the bank was about to take ownership of the house, Maria Isserles said.

“They were already in the final stages of foreclosure when they rented the house,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine somebody being so cold and heartless. … How can you do this to a family with a sick child?”

The landlord, Alfred Sundar, said in a telephone interview that he knew he had defaulted on the loan but thought he had reached a settlement with the bank that would allow him to keep the rental house.

“I submitted all of the paperwork to the bank, and the bank said it was going to work with me, that I would pay $1,440 a month,” said Sundar, who drives a shuttle bus at Orlando International Airport. “And when I received a letter in the mail that the house was sold, I was shocked.”

He said he has a daughter with severe medical conditions and understands somewhat the plight of his tenants.

“If I knew the bank wouldn’t work with me, I would have never rented it to them,” he said of the Isserles family.

The agent who first knocked on the Isserleses’ front door to ask them to leave said the family’s plight was unfortunate but noted that the bank is giving them six weeks to relocate instead of the 48-hour notice many renters get. And the family is getting compensated for being forced out.

Joe Isserles said the bank offered him $1,500 to leave the house, in an arrangement known in the mortgage business as “cash for keys.” After explaining that he and his wife had invested time and money cleaning and painting the rental, he was able to get $3,400.

Unlike states such as New York and California, Florida has few laws to protect renters’ rights. Relief may be on the way, however, in the form of a new federal law passed earlier this month by Congress.

Effective immediately, tenants who pay rent on time can remain in their homes until their lease ends plus an additional 90 days – unless the bank sells the property to someone who intends to reside in it. Even without a lease, a renter may stay in a house for as long as 90 days after the foreclosure is complete, though that provision in the law is set to expire at the end of 2012.

“Really, it’s the first major piece of legislation that protects renters from foreclosure,” said Taylor Materio, spokeswoman for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The Isserles family, meanwhile, has found another home nearby where it can relocate. This time, Joe Isserles said, he did the homework to make sure the family wouldn’t get another unwanted knock on the door.

©2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.