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Florida's Forgotten Victims Of Foreclosure: Tenants


MIAMI -- Sergio Palacios doesn't have the typical South Florida foreclosure story.

He doesn't live in a McMansion in some suburban subdivision. He wasn't tricked into a mortgage he couldn't afford. In fact, he doesn't own a home at all. He's a tenant. But for the last five months and counting, Palacios, an unemployed construction worker, has lived in his Liberty City apartment without running water.

Deutsche Bank filed a foreclosure suit against the property's owners in April. As Palacios and his roommate suffered through illness and joblessness, they have slipped out to friends' houses to drink and bathe when they could, and did without when they couldn't.

On Tuesday, in a hearing that lasted less than nine minutes, Florida Eleventh Judicial Circuit Judge Gladys Perez ordered his water turned back on.

"Why are we here if we know the tenants are there?" she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice. Florida law prohibits landlords from simply cutting off utilities, a point which a lawyer for the apartment's owners, Joseph Dolsan and Jean Mervoir, did not dispute.

"Let's do it," Perez continued, "let's get the water back on."

Palacios's saga won't end there. Dolsan and Mervoir have vowed to evict him. But his hearing on Tuesday illustrates one of the hidden undercurrents of the foreclosure crisis: tenants, many who have little or no income, caught in the middle of battles between banks and property owners. The Census's American Community Survey estimates that 345,000 housing units in Miami-Dade County are renter-occupied -- 42 percent of the area's total. An unknown number of those units have been caught up in the area's housing crash.


Some 40 percent of the families nationwide facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters, according to National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates. Many of those foreclosures happen in low-income, non-white communities, where the tenants affected are the least likely to seek legal help or know their rights.

Federal law passed in 2009 creates some protections for tenants, but only once the properties they live in have been formally foreclosed upon. That a process that can often drag out over months.

Palacios's lawyer at Florida Legal Services, Purvi Shah, said she has handled about a dozen similar instances of landlords in foreclosure cutting off utilities in the past year. While statistics about the problem seem to be scarce, she estimates that foreclosure means "dozens if not hundreds of families are living without running water in South Florida."

By and large, she said, her clients live in duplexes, triplexes or other small multi-family residences. They are often properties that "investors purchased at the height of the bubble, thinking they were going to have a good investment property, or that they would be able to flip the property, then got caught in the crash."

"You've got landlords who are living in the middle of foreclosure," Shah said, "allowing their properties to run into the ground."

Foreclosures are often see as two-sided conflicts between banks and mortgagees, leaving tenants forgotten. Shah would like to see more responsibility for maintaining rental properties placed on lenders like Deutsche Bank, but for now there is little legal basis in Florida for actions like that.

Legislation passed in 2009 grants renters the right to stay in their properties for 90 days after a foreclosure has been finalized or throughout the term of their lease, whichever is longer.

"Before, banks always thought that we don't want to be landlords, and nobody can make us landlords," said Kent Qian, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project. Generally, he said, some banks don't see the value in collecting rent from only a few tenants when they have to go through the hassle of maintaining properties for them -- "but the federal law makes it clear."

"When you look back at all the federal requirements, who's been required to do what, I'd say that banks with regard to homeowner were required to do little" since the housing crash, said Linda Couch, the National Low Income Housing Coaltion's senior vice president for policy and research. "This is one area where Congress said wait a minute, we truly have a blameless victim here."

Since the foreclosure on his building is still dragging on, Palacio filed a lawsuit against Dolsan and Mervoir to keep the water running.Florida law mandates that tenants' utilities stay connected and residences remain habitable.

"There is no federal legislation that addresses that," said Qian. "So a lot of problems can happen during the foreclosure process, especially when the former landlord, who's not making their payments, skips out on all the other checks as well."

Even when tenants are able to make payments on utilities themselves, they are often confronted with a messy legal and logistical tangle of utility bills and inconsistent laws.

In many states it is difficult for tenants to take over utility payments when their landlords fail to uphold their obligations. Shah, Palacios's lawyer, said a recently passed ordinance should make it easier for Miami tenants to step in -- but that the high deposit fees required will make it difficult for many of her clients to pay up.

Shah would like to see the county step up its code enforcement. She would also like to see more cities and towns "look at this and see what's happening to our communities wholesale."

"Our multifamily properties," Shah said, "are either languishing or no longer serving as healthy safety property."

In the case of Palacios's residence -- a duplex on the county's property register that Shah claimed was illegally subdivided into three units -- everyone seems to agree that the property is languishing. Palacios is withholding his rent over the generally shabby upkeep of his home.

Marlie Condon, the landlords' lawyer, said she would be starting the eviction process almost at the same time as the water was restored.

"We have to," Condon said. "There's not supposed to be anyone in there now. There's problems with the building."

That response, Shah said, would be a "retaliatory eviction" -- which Shah said she'd fight it in court.

Speaking through a court interpreter on Tuesday, Palacios said he was pleased with his incremental victory. "Yes, yes, yes," he said, "very happy."

Courtesy of Huffington Post

Banks still adding new fees to customers

Banks still adding new fees to customers

By Matt Browner Hamlin on 11/14/2011 10:32:00 AM

There was a lot of rightful celebration when Bank of America and other major banks were forced to drop planned debit card fees following major protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement and other community groups. But, not shockingly, the major banks are still finding ways to squeeze money out of customers. The New York Times has a report at the more subtle ways banks are using to extract more wealth from the 99%. Citing the need to make up billions of dollars in lost overdraft penalties and swipe fees that were eliminated by Congress, banks are trying to make up the difference in other areas.

For consumers, the result is a quiet creep of new charges and higher fees for everything from cash withdrawals at ATMs to wire payments, paper statements and in some cases, even the overdraft charges that lawmakers hoped to ratchet down. What is more, banks are raising minimum account balances and adding other new requirements so that it is harder for customers to qualify for fee waivers.

Even the much-maligned debit usage charges have effectively been bundled into higher monthly fees on checking accounts. Bank of America abandoned its $5 a month debit card usage fee in late October amid a firestorm of criticism. Yet, it more quietly raised the cost of its basic MyAccess checking account by more than $3 a month earlier this year. Monthly maintenance fees now run $12 a month, up from $8.95.

The Times' report notes that Senators Dick Durbin and Jack Reed are pushing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to have banks "adopt a more consumer-friendly disclosure form, akin to the nutrition label on food packaging, for all the fees attached to a checking account." This is a pretty good idea, in that it would make decision making by consumers easier. But the whole problem consumers are facing today is that they already have accounts with banks and the banks are changing the fee structure on them. While the Move Your Money campaign is a great start, it's also clear that a complete banking shift isn't the same thing as switching from Frosted Flakes to Cheerios.

Most importantly, what's clear is that when you fight the big banks, you can win, but no win is final. Stopping the $5 debit card fee was a great victory for the Occupy movement and consumer advocates, but it's hardly the whole war. Banks will keep trying to extract every penny possible from consumers in the absence of regulation which prevents them from doing it and regulators committed to enforcing the regulations. Consumers need to stay wary and consumer advocates have to keep fighting back against bank greed. As the banks continue to find new and innovative ways to screw their customers, credit unions will keep gaining customers as people stand up and say, "Enough!" To put it differently, the more banks abuse their customers, the more the market will speak and tell them that this is not a behavior consumers are interested in supporting.

Bank of AntiAmerica

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Bank Of Anti-America

"The Banks Got Bailed out, We got Sold Out!" That chant amongst others encapsulated the frustration felt by the 99% of Americans that have been negatively affected by the policies supported by and actions of the top 1% in this country. The latest action was Bank Of America announcing that will charge a monthly fee of $5.00 for usage of the Debit card. On Tuesday November 1, Miami Workers Center along with other organizations and a couple hundred Maimians went on the streets and took it from the "Hood to the Bank" as the marchers made it clear that they were fed up with that decision, the direction of the economy and quite frankly the direction of society. Once arriving at the bank members of the march would immediately go in and close their accounts to show dissatisfaction with a corporation that has operated in a way that has been detrimental to society at large, with this fee adding insult to injury.

The protest grew in numbers as the march went along and by the time the march passed the Government Center the site of the Occupy Miami encampment the crowd had swelled into a larger, energetic and engaged crowd. Witnesses of the march whether people driving by or persons at work looking out the windows, waved, honked and shouted their support in solidarity as they fully recognize that they are part of the 99%

The swelled march finally reached the Bank Of America location in Downtown Miami. On arriving Bank of America locked their doors even as customers tried to come and do business with the Bank. The message was clear, Bank Of America did not want the public to view customers closing their accounts on such an engaged platform. That did not deter or dampen the spirits of the marchers, the marchers put on theater, played music, and chanted for a couple more hours. The point was made, the 99% had had enough and the 99% was going to be seen and heard.

News reports showed that there had been a spike in accounts being opened in Credit Unions and community banks. By the end of the day Bank Of America announced that the bank was going to reverse the decision to have this

Monopoly: Miami Edition

Despite adverse weather conditions, more than 100 people came out this past Saturday to discuss issues that are directly affecting them and their neighborhoods. The prevailing topic was new development projects that threaten to push them out.  Those in attendance seemed propelled by a deep yearning to not only understand the mechanics of such projects but also a desire to change the status quo, the lack of jobs and economic opportunity for them and others like them.


Report: High Black Unemployment Widespread

Black unemployment has spread beyond the Midwest’s rustbelt according to the Economic Policy Institute.

High rates of Black unemployment have spread beyond the Midwestern rustbelt states that were home to dismal rates of employment before the recession, says a new report from the Economic Policy Institute.