Sheriff in Chicago halts foreclosure evictions

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The sheriff of the third-most populous U.S. county halted evictions on foreclosed properties on Thursday, saying innocent tenants were being put on the street. But bankers said he was breaking the law.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he understood he was flouting the law in refusing to have deputies carry out the rising number of eviction requests, but mortgage holders must be accountable.

“These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not people, and don’t care who’s in the building,” Dart said.

The eviction moratorium applied to any home, apartment building or condominium facing mortgage foreclosure. Other evictions due to such issues as failing to pay rent would continue, Dart said.

Dart, whose county includes the city of Chicago and encompasses 5.4 million people, said he believed he was the first sheriff in a major metropolitan area to take such a step. Chicago is the hometown of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

A spokesman for the sheriff said there were more than 500 evictions for foreclosure scheduled over the next six weeks and the office was on pace to conduct 4,500 evictions this year.

Mortgage foreclosure cases filed in Cook County are likely to exceed 43,000 this year, compared to some 18,000 in 2006, the sheriff said.

The Chicago metropolitan area ranked 35th in the United States in terms of foreclosure rates in the second quarter, according to RealtyTrac.

Illinois law was recently revised to require the owner of the property and mortgage holder to notify whoever lives there 120 days before an eviction is carried out.

But some landlords disappear without notifying tenants, or tenants may be tossing out eviction notices in the mail without realizing what they are, said Linda Koch, president of the Illinois Bankers Association.

The bankers trade group said Dart was ignoring the law and was engaging in “vigilantism.”

“In announcing his plan, Dart acknowledged that he could be found in contempt of court,” the IBA said in a statement, adding that the sheriff’s decision “should not be tolerated.”

“We have to have the ability to take over collateral upon default, and if we don’t have that assurance, or we think evictions won’t be made ... we simply won’t make the loan,” Koch said of the moratorium.

Reporting by Andrew Stern, editing by Michael Conlon and David Wiessler