LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - The day before her husband was deployed to the Middle East by the U.S. Air Force, Marketa Johnson got word that her family would be evicted from their rented home.
It did not matter that the Johnsons had never missed a rent payment and had signed a two-year lease. The property owner was facing foreclosure and so Johnson simply packed her bags.
But last month, when she got another eviction notice and was ordered to leave her new home, she decided to fight.
“We military are good tenants,” said Johnson whose husband, Derrick, is an Air Force pilot. “We always take care of the property. We were never late, never. I don’t see a reason that we should not stay there.”
The U.S. housing crisis that has caused a spike in foreclosures has meant not only anguish for delinquent mortgage borrowers but heartache for renters in good standing.
Almost one in five recent foreclosures have been against mortgage borrowers who did not live in the home, according to a snapshot from the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The true rate is probably even higher, the trade group says, in part because many investors who bought homes during the recent boom wanted the funding advantages of being classed as owner-occupied.
Depending on the state and how soon the tenant is notified of foreclosure proceedings, renters may have anywhere from a couple of months to less than a week to leave a home.
“If the tenant first learns about foreclosure when the sheriff places the writ of possession on the door, they might only have a few days,” said Jeffrey Hearne, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami.
While the types of cases vary, lawyers who help troubled renters say there is no doubt that the problem is worsening.
One in four housing-related calls to Legal Services of Greater Miami’s renter advocacy line have been from distressed renters in recent weeks, while the group rarely heard such complaints last year, Hearne said.
Nevada Legal Services, which is giving Johnson legal advice, has also seen a rise in calls and estimates that 5,000 renting families have been displaced in the past 18 months.
In the Las Vegas area, many of those families have military ties and are already facing many other challenges.
“I know that this has been an issue for command because it is so disruptive to our mission,” said Michael Estrada, a civilian spokesman for Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where more than three-quarters of the 8,000 airmen live off-base.
It is not uncommon for military families to deal with an eviction while a soldier is on deployment, Estrada said.
“This is often a stress for the caregiver in a family,” he said.
Tenants rights groups say they are frustrated that mortgage servicers seem so eager to put out paying tenants once the property falls into their hands.
“Lenders are just hard-wired not to deal with a tenant,” said Anna Marie Johnson, the director of Nevada Legal Services. “We did speak with one bank lawyer who said the liability is so extreme that it’s worth it to just let the house stay empty.”
In a now-common offer dubbed “cash for keys,” many mortgage servicers will pay tenants to abandon properties in an orderly way.
Johnson has not received such an offer and does not know where her fight will end but she hopes to remain in the house until the current lease ends in 12 months.
“People have asked ‘What do you want?”’ she said, sitting with a notebook bulging with documents she has collected to support her case. “We want to be able to stay.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan