In the middle of the worst housing crisis to hit the United States in decades, it might seem that renting is a safe option. But a growing number of renters are also being pulled into the fray as their landlords go into foreclosure.
Pilsen resident Eva Wiebel has been living in her apartment for more than a year. She says she loves the diversity of the neighborhood. The price for rent was right. All was well until a strange letter arrived from a bank.
"I just thought it was junk mail. And when we read it, we were just like, 'This looks so unprofessional -- this can't be real,'" Wiebel said.
It was real.
The letter was from a bank, notifying Wiebel and her roommates that the building’s landlord was facing foreclosure.
"It just said something along the lines of, 'The bank is taking over from here. Don't pay the landlords anymore," she recalled. "Our landlords just told us that they were trying to take over the building and that they had no right, and that they were less than 30 days behind, and like, that we needed to keep paying the [landlords]." Wiebel's case is far from isolated. Renters caught between a bank and a landlord is an increasingly common problem, according to Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.
"It's a mine field. You have to worry about annoying the lardlord, [and] you have to make sure you're paying the right person because you could still get evicted for non-payment of rent," said Michael Van Zalingen of NHS.
In Chicago and across the country, the question is being raised: to whom should renters pay rent after their building has been foreclosed?
Van Zalingen said Wiebel and renters in similar situations are obligated to pay the lender, not the landlord.
"It's a real conflict because we have two different people asking for the same pot of money," he said.
And if a landlord does go into foreclosure, can renters like Eva Wiebel, be kicked to the curb?
The answer used to be a resounding "yes," but a little known, recent law changed that. The "Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009" ensures tenants are not summarily evicted after their building goes into foreclosure.
The law, signed by President Barack Obama, provides an additional 90 days for tenants who are on a month-to-month lease. And for those with a traditional lease, the act is clear.
"If you have a written lease, then you are entitled to live out the terms of your lease and no one can force you out," said Van Zalingen.
That may be a much-needed spot of good news for renters, who are increasingly finding themselves caught in the middle.
"I had never done anything wrong. I paid my rent on time. It just feels rather unfair," said Wiebel.