For subsidized renters, CHA inspections may be first hint of foreclosure

Inspection data from the Chicago Housing Authority suggests many properties were already on the slide.

September 9, 2013

WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Nikki Johnson holds a housing choice voucher. She recently learned her apartment is in the foreclosure process.

When Johneece Cobb collected the mail not long ago at her home in Auburn Gresham, one piece of mail stuck out.

“A letter came in a manila envelope and it said Citibank on it. It was [the landlord’s]. I put it in the pile,” Cobb said.

That night Cobb couldn’t sleep. She had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.

“Something just kept telling me, look at that envelope. Look at that envelope. I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning, walked downstairs got that envelope and I opened it and it was the court papers for the foreclosure,” Cobb said.

This was all news to Cobb. Her landlord never told her. Cobb pays her rent via a subsidized voucher program commonly known as Section 8.

“I have COPD. I’m an oxygen patient. And I’m disabled. And at this point, I cannot afford to live if it wasn’t for Section 8,” she said.

But in this case there wasn’t much she could do. It turns out the foreclosure process was underway before she even moved in. Cobb was forced to move out of the home on 84th and Sangamon.

The Chicago Housing Authority administers the federally subsidized housing choice voucher program — its largest portfolio of low-income renters. Cobb said CHA swiftly helped her relocate after she alerted officials. But she was in a precarious spot.

As the foreclosure dragged on, the landlord stopped the upkeep of the property but kept collecting a check from CHA. A month before she moved out, CHA inspected the property and gave it a failing grade.

That inspection report could’ve been the first clue that the property was in trouble.

According to a data analysis by The Chicago Reporter there’s a strong correlation between failed CHA inspections and foreclosures. Beginning in January of last year nearly 1,550 properties occupied by voucher-holders have been named in a foreclosure filing.

Since 2008, banks have taken over more than 2,400 properties that were inspected within a year of the foreclosure sale. Inspection data from the Chicago Housing Authority suggests that many of the properties were on the slide in the year before the banks took them back.

Yet many landlords were still receiving subsidies from CHA.

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” said Elizabeth Rosenthal, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation, which helps voucher holders who get caught up in the system. “You can guess that if there’s a landlord that’s completely stopped taking care of a building, there’s a good chance that there’s a foreclosure coming down the pike.”

Rosenthal said CHA is responsive to residents, but she wishes there was a more formal policy on the books.

“We do get a fair number of cases where the tenant calls us because they’ve been notified that their building is in foreclosure or sometimes they don’t even know their building is in foreclosure. They figure it out because they get a notice from the gas company,” Rosenthal said.

And when that happens often their next phone call is to Tamiko Holt, a voucher holder who advocates on behalf of tenants to CHA. She, too, was forced to move out of a unit more than a decade ago after her landlord went through foreclosure.

Now she helps renters like Johneece Cobb fight for their security deposits once they move out. It’s more than an inconvenience. Hundreds of dollars or more can be a lot for a low-income family.

“We have no protection as far as security deposits. It’s like a roll of the dice. Is this landlord or owner going to give your security deposit back or not?” Holt said, adding that she wants CHA to do more homework before tenants are placed.

“If they did that, then tenants wouldn’t be faced with, ‘oh I’ve only been here three or four months, now I’ve got to go’ because this property was going into foreclosure.”

According to CHA’s Chief Housing Officer Ellen Sahli, CHA is, in fact, doing more to prevent that from happening. Still, she said when foreclosure notices are sent out they don’t go to CHA.

“One of the things that we are looking at and working with our partners on is how we can get those type of supports to us as well,” Sahli said.

But when pressed for details Sahli said “I can’t at this time give a timeline on it. I think these are all issues that are important to us and we’re working hard to figure out what the right strategy is.”

Since the foreclosure crisis hit, there have been new state and local laws to help renters. But tenants don’t always know when a bank is stepping in.

On a recent afternoon at Nikki Johnson’s airy, three-bedroom South Shore apartment, the television is on a cartoon channel and the toddlers are sleeping. Johnson runs an in-home daycare.

Her building is in foreclosure. But she didn’t know until I knocked on her door.

And Johnson was surprised.

“If I do have to move, I want enough time where I could be able to be settled and find something that I can afford. I don’t want just to jump out there again in the wind. I’m hoping if I do have to move, the program will assist me as far as helping me find another landlord who will take the program,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s landlord, who didn’t want to be identified, said he got swallowed by new bank policies that wouldn’t renew his loan. That, coupled with the falling value of the property, led to foreclosure.

Unlike a lot of landlords, he said he will continue to cut the grass and pay the bills.

He may not be paying the mortgage — but he’s still getting money from CHA.

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.

Angela Caputo of The Chicago Reporter crunched and analyzed the data for this report.