Sean Doran — full-time computer programmer by day, Eckerd College student by night — was thrilled last fall to rent a room for $300 in a house near the snazzy Vinoy hotel in St. Petersburg.
But three months into his lease, the owners informed Doran that the mortgage payments were crushing them. He could stay in the house on Sixth Avenue NE and Beach Drive as long as he liked, though the owners weren't sure they could hold off the repo man.
"One day out of the blue the cops showed up, the banks showed up," the 36-year-old ex-Marine said. "They had us pack up all our things. I grabbed my backpack, left and went down to Starbucks and wondered what I was going to do."
Renters like Doran are being kicked to the curb by the hundreds in a Tampa Bay area housing market that logged more than 5,800 foreclosure cases in February. It was a 37 percent rise in foreclosures from a year earlier.
In many cases the renter is unaware that the landlord has defaulted on his mortgage and pays the penalty with temporary homelessness when the bank comes knocking.
During the housing boom that ended in 2006, many investor-owners took out huge loans on homes that have since plunged in value. The housing glut has driven rents lower, leaving many landlords without cash to pay the mortgage. The problem seems even more widespread in the suburbs, where thousands of homes were built by now-delinquent speculators.
In late February, Dave Scheffler skedaddled from a 2-year-old house in the Dupree Lakes neighborhood in Land O'Lakes he had been renting since August. He'd been paying his landlord $1,650 a month, but he learned by registered letter in October that the 2,650-square-foot house was about to hit foreclosure court.
"I've been paying the last eight months, and he's got $10,000 of my money," Scheffler said as he moved house plants, patio furniture and barbells into a moving van. "Did the bank get the money? I don't think so."
Scheffler was the third renter on the same street purged from foreclosure homes this winter. Another family left so fast it abandoned possessions in heaps on the driveway: a pink Barbie bike the daughter had been peddling a day earlier, leather sofas, a computer desk, garbage bags stuffed with clothing.
Scheffler was lucky. He got wind of the foreclosure months before the home was to be repossessed. Others don't find out until a sheriff's deputy knocks on the door with a 24-hour eviction notice. It usually means a mad rush for a U-haul and a frantic house cleaning.
In Live Oak Preserve, the New Tampa neighborhood that alternatively soared and crashed with the boom and bust, neighbors on Sultana Count were stunned late last year when their neighbors, an immigrant family, disappeared one day — but not before the tenants strewed their possessions on the lawn and driveway of the 2,700-square-foot house that sold for $325,000 three years earlier.
At first Live Oak residents assumed the family would return for their belongings. They never did. Passersby began carting away the more valuable stuff.
"Everything was left on the lawn — computers, furniture. The community association had to clean it up," said neighborhood association president Gui Pradieu. "The renters didn't even know the sheriff was kicking them out."
To avoid legal delays, lenders typically list "unknown tenants" along with the borrowers on their foreclosure lawsuits. When the home is auctioned or repossessed, the tenant usually gets the boot. No one keeps hard numbers of how many tenants have been so displaced in the Tampa Bay area, but they easily run in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Tenants sometimes know of the foreclosure before the landlord since the paperwork is delivered to the address in question, Clearwater lawyer George Werner said. Fright — and flight — can follow.
"What I see is the flip side: Tenants unnecessarily panicking and leaving," Werner said. "They say, 'Oh, my God, the house is going to be gone in a month.' That's not true. It's going to take at least three months."
Congress recently passed a law that gives renters the choice of staying in a home that's been repossessed by government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It hasn't helped Doran, who's been living the life of a nomad, bunking with siblings and friends until he can nail down a permanent place.
He warns fellow tenants to be careful. Just last week he was evicted from another St. Petersburg home. He arrived home from work to find a Realtor's key box on the door and a "For Sale" sign out front.
"It's such a renter's market these days," Doran said. "I have to check landlords' references, not the other way around."