Friday, February 06, 2009

 

Trend of the Day: Squatting on foreclosed homes

Experts say instances of people renting out homes over which they have no legal right are increasingly common.

Squatters have been found living in foreclosed homes nationwide, and homeless advocates in many cities are arguing for their right to do so.

—Sam Stanton reporting in "Bizarre signs come out as mystery pair move into upscale Sacramento neighborhood"


I found the case as well as Stanton's reporting quite interesting—

Sacramento police were in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods Tuesday investigating a scheme with a twist: claims that the house involved is under the protection of a sovereign republic and that trespass could be met with "self defense" and "justifiable homicide."

The bizarre case unfolded Tuesday in a gated West Natomas neighborhood that boasts million-dollar homes and some of the city's most prominent residents – think members of the Maloof family.1

At issue is a 3,361-square-foot home on Clubside Lane that sold in 2006 for $865,000, assessor's records show. Neighbors say the home has been on the market seven times since then and that the last owner moved out more than a year ago.

What on earth does this mean? Has the home been bought or repossessed seven times since 2006?

It's been vacant ever since.

It needed a rest.

That all changed over the weekend, when lights suddenly came on and a middle-aged couple started moving stuff in.

About the same time, two printed signs appeared on the front window, one of them warning against trespassing and claiming the home was the "Private Property of sovereign Woman of republic of California" and that federal and state employees could not access the property.

The sign mentioned "freeman," an apparent reference to the radical anti-government group that gained fame in 1996 during an 81-day standoff with federal authorities in Montana.

It also referred to the occupants' right to "Self-Preservation – Right To Repel Force By Force – Self Defense – Justifiable Homicide."

What we have here may be a case of a right-wing haunting, which would explain all the comings and goings.

It's just not something you'd expect to find on a block where your neighbors include the owners of the Sacramento Kings; former Kings star Mike Bibby; California State University, Sacramento President Alexander Gonzalez; and Sacramento Assistant City Manager Gus Vina.

No, it's really just not the thing. Something should be done. Something was—

Police were called, and Tuesday morning, real estate fraud detective Mike Wood showed up to talk to the tenants.They produced a contract allowing them to rent the four-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom home with a pool and fireplace for $1,500 a month, police said.

What a deal!

That contract carried the name of Sacramento real estate broker Phillis Powers, police said, the same person listed in one of the window signs as the contact for information on the home.

As the investigation continued, Wood learned that the home had been purchased at auction last Thursday by Aurora Loan Services Inc. of Littleton, Colo., and that Aurora did not know who Phillis Powers was or why someone was living in the home.

"They said the place should be empty," said police spokesman Norm Leong.

A bank spokeswoman referred calls to Aurora's parent company, Lehman Brothers Bank. (Aurora's Web site states that it is not part of the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc.). A spokeswoman at Lehman Brothers Bank did not return a call.

Now I'm confused. Are there two banks involved? And will Lehman Brothers speak to the reporter or won't they?

Powers did not respond to three messages left on her phonemail Tuesday. The tenants told police they did not want to speak to the media and did not respond to knocks at the door.

A call to the cell phone number listed for one of the renters – Carver Barney, 57 – was answered by a man who insisted he was not Barney and that he had been reached through a wrong number. A second call to the same phone produced a man who said he was Barney's brother-in-law and that Barney was unavailable.

Will no one besides the police and the neighbors talk to this poor reporter? Don't they realize he has a deadline to meet?

Police say they do not know whether the tenants were victims or participants in an alleged scheme. But Wood, the fraud detective, said he dealt with Powers in a past case involving an Elk Grove home.

"On the one instance I had before, the house was for sale and the Realtor who was representing the bank came over and found someone living in it," Wood said.

Nothing came of that case. The tenants moved out before Wood could question them, he said.

More likely they heard that reporter Stanton was on the way.

Wood said he has arrested people for advertising rental homes on the Internet illegally, and former U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said the types of foreclosure scams being discovered continue to grow.

"I wish I could tell you there's something novel about it, but there isn't," said Scott, now a partner in the Sacramento law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliff. "You have vacant homes that were foreclosed on and real estate agents renting the home out to tenants...."

There's nothing novel about this? I really must get out more. On second thought maybe I shouldn't.

In the Natomas case, police said they were concerned about the language on the signs in the windows and confiscated them as evidence.

Evidence of what?

A nationally known expert on groups such as the Freemen said real estate frauds involving its followers pop up regularly.

"The Freemen are an offshoot of the Posse Comitatus movement, which maintains there is no legitimate government beyond the county level," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

"They really don't believe that any of these laws apply to them, so from time to time you'll see this type of thing bubble up, from squatting on property that isn't their own or buying something with a fraudulent cashier's check."

Finally I understand what our politicians have been up to—they've joined the Freemen. And all this time I was thinking they were just corrupt!

Sacramento police said their probe continues into possible charges of fraud, burglary and trespassing but that it is not clear whether charges will be filed or the tenants evicted.

When I consider the financial condition of Lehman Brothers, I suggest they continue to collect the rent.

Meanwhile, neighbors say they aren't sure what to think.

"I understand people are in desperate situations," said 71-year-old Jim May, who lives next door. "This just seems odd."

As the Depression deepens, the novelty will quickly pass.

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Footnote

1I tried to think of members of the Maloof family and could not think of even one. A little googling revealed the name Joe Maloof, owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team. [back]

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