Citing an "economic crisis," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced Wednesday he is stopping all mortgage foreclosure evictions until lenders can prove occupants of a foreclosed home have been notified.
Dart conceded the action could leave him open to contempt of court for not carrying out eviction orders, but said, "We are no longer going to be party to something that is so unjust."
The suspension will apply only to houses, condominiums and other properties in foreclosure. Evictions for lease violations by tenants who have not paid their rent will continue.
Dart is taking the action until banks and other mortgage holders submit affidavits in court showing that whoever is living in a foreclosed home has been given the required 120-day notice to get out.
In response, the Illinois Bankers Association issued a written statement strongly opposing Dart's idea.
"By ignoring the law and his legal responsibilities, he is carrying out 'vigilantism' at the highest level of an elected official," the statement read. "This cannot be acceptable to anyone, regardless of their viewpoints."
The statement noted numerous laws are in place to protect homeowners and renters, including provisions for giving notice.
The dispute is over an increasingly common situation: a homeowner rents out the property and fails to pay the mortgage. The courts order the sheriff to evict the people living in the unit. They turn out to be renters who paid their rent and were never properly notified.
As a symptom of the recent national mortgage crisis, foreclosure filings in Cook County have almost tripled since 2005, to a projected 43,000 this year.
Evictions from those foreclosures have also spiked, from 1,771 in 2006 to a projected 4,500 this year, with an accompanying rise in violent confrontations between sheriff's deputies and outraged tenants.
The sheriff's suspension is expected temporarily to save 400 to 500 people from eviction a month. Those tenants will still be subject to eviction after 120 days' notice, but Dart said the delay will give them crucial time to work out living arrangements so they are not suddenly thrown out on the street.
He cited "gut-wrenching" cases in which working single mothers came home to find their children and possessions in the street, where their meager belongings often get stolen.
The Albany Park Neighborhood Council cited one apartment building that had been converted to condos without notification to the tenants. The landlord left, the council alleged, after getting more than $2 million in loans for renovations that were never done.
A check of suburban sheriff's offices found all those contacted were dealing with a sharp increase in foreclosure evictions, but none were suspending the practice.
Kane County Sheriff Patrick Perez said the number of mortgage foreclosure evictions has more than doubled since 2006, with more than 3,000 expected this year, to the point where he has a three-month backlog of evictions.
He was not aware of renters being duped for their landlord's failure to pay, but said the law should ensure notification to tenants.
The DuPage County Sheriff's spokeswoman, Dawn Domrose, said the department would keep doing evictions because, like other sheriffs, it is under court order to do so.