Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, like his counterparts across the nation, has been evicting people from their homes in ever increasing numbers. In 2008 the Chicago Democrat and his deputies conducted 4,487 court-ordered mortgage foreclosure evictions, an increase of 153 percent over the office’s 2006 numbers. But on October 8 Dart stood before TV cameras and said he’d had enough. Criticizing banks and mortgage companies as heartless, careless and taking advantage of taxpayers, he suspended all mortgage foreclosure evictions. Suddenly Dart appeared to be the kind of lawman Tom Joad might have clapped on the back.
In a recent interview Dart said that over the summer he’d become aware that the eviction orders increasingly lacked evidence of the due diligence the banks were supposed to perform. In one instance, he said, his deputies arrived to evict residents from a building that no longer existed, and in other cases they found residents had documents showing they were rightfully in the house. “It was a disaster,” he said. “Just complete chaos out there.”
The tipping point came with the crisis at 4914-16 North Spaulding, an apartment building full of Hispanic immigrant families in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. Mihail Stancu, a Romanian immigrant, had purchased the building in October 2006 under the guise of MKST Enterprises, and he’d gone on to become the kind of owner Tom Joad might have clapped on the head with a shovel. According to City of Chicago senior assistant corporation counsel Steven McKenzie, Stancu’s corporation sold the seven units as seven condos, the buyer being Stancu himself, who’d borrowed from seven lenders. Stancu was then in possession of a lot of cash and a lot of debt, and according to McKenzie the Romanian simply abandoned the latter, pocketing as much as $1.2 million, after which he disappeared. McKenzie, who has filed charges against Stancu, reports that the fugitive has been spotted in Spain and Romania.
Stancu had regularly collected rents from his tenants, but the collections stopped after about a year. Unable to reach the owner, tenant Esteban Cruz, an immigrant landscaper and gardener, began collecting the rents, paying for repairs and utilities, and depositing the remainder into a bank account belonging to Stancu. None of the tenants were particularly worried until May 28 of last year, when what seemed to be an eviction notice was posted on the front door and on the mailboxes of all the units. A second threatening notice followed shortly thereafter. Cruz brought the paperwork to the offices of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. APNC recognized the notices as bank-generated, not court-generated, discovered the condominium ruse and laid out the problem before a housing court judge. The judge recognized that the best course was to put the building into receivership and try to find a single buyer who would convert the condos back into affordable rental housing. Armed with that decision, the tenants should have been safe.