Enforcing their last goodbyes
The out-of-work actor standing in the driveway assured the officers that the family that used to live in the foreclosed house was long gone.
But the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were taking no chances. A few days earlier, one of their colleagues had been attacked by a pit bull while carrying out an eviction in Lancaster. (And a few days later, a Riverside man was arrested for rigging what looked like pipe bombs outside his foreclosed home.)
Deputies Anthony Munoz and Robert Cohen took out their flashlights and entered the West Covina house defensively. It is the Sheriff Department’s job to carry out court-ordered evictions throughout the county by checking each room of a foreclosed home, then signing it over to a bank representative.
Shawn Lund, the actor who pays his bills these days by working for a company that handles foreclosures for banks, waited in the driveway. He stood next to a forlorn collection of abandoned toys, which didn’t seem to faze him. His Bluetooth device glittered in his ear and he smiled in the morning mist. He said he planned to get back to acting soon.
The deputies returned in less than three minutes, and it took just seconds more for them to sign the house over to Lund. They had to be speedy, with a dozen more evictions ahead.
As they left, Lund said he would see them soon -- in two hours, in fact, at another stop a few miles away.
As the deputies make their rounds trying to keep up with foreclosure evictions in eastern Los Angeles County, they repeatedly encounter a motley cast of characters -- actors, retired police officers, locksmiths and specialized house cleaners -- who have figured out how to capitalize on the housing collapse.
Cohen and Munoz, who work out of the West Covina courthouse, say they run into these folks far more often in the course of a day than they do families being evicted. Cohen said they do about 80 to 100 evictions a week. Other teams work out of other courthouses around the county.
In the first quarter of 2009, L.A. County default filings -- the first stage in the foreclosure process -- were up 38% from the same period last year.
By the time the court has processed an eviction and the deputies show up to turn the residence over to the bank, most families -- even those who fought their evictions -- have packed up and left.
That’s just fine with the deputies. Turning children out of their homes, watching fathers carry loads of belongings and mothers cry, is not a job either of them relishes.
“Those are the hard days,” said Cohen, a mild-mannered man with crinkly eyes and an easy laugh who is unfailingly courteous to everyone he encounters.
The pair set out from the West Covina courthouse before 8 a.m. on a recent Friday with 25 evictions scheduled.
Twelve were canceled before deputies started because the occupants agreed at the last minute to leave on their own.
That left 13 residences from which the deputies would have to be prepared to physically remove people. In most cases, it turned out that they had already gone but that no one had notified the Sheriff’s Department.
At only one stop did Cohen and Munoz have to remove someone.
Shortly after 9 a.m. they discovered Andres Enciso sleeping on the floor of a home on Northam Street in La Puente.
Enciso, who appeared terrified and confused, ran out of his house carrying a bundle of blankets, then ran back in because he had forgotten the family’s pet, a pit bull. He spoke only Spanish, which neither Munoz nor Cohen speaks well. In bits and pieces, Enciso told the deputies he had been moving his family out when he fell asleep. He said he was a renter -- and his landlord had not said anything about the house being in foreclosure.
It was a situation Munoz and Cohen have encountered before: The owner stops paying the mortgage but keeps collecting rent and does not tell the tenants they are about to face the Sheriff’s Department.
With mounting numbers of foreclosures, the problem has become so common that Los Angeles late last year passed a city ordinance limiting bank evictions of tenants and requiring payment of relocation fees to those forced out.
But renters living outside the city of Los Angeles have little protection, and tenant advocates say they are increasingly seeing families who had moved in just days or weeks before deputies showed up to remove them, losing their deposits and rental payments in the process.
Cohen and Munoz said they try to be compassionate.
A week earlier, he said, they arrived at a foreclosed home and found an elderly woman who seemed to need medical care.
“We just said, ‘We can’t do it,’ ” he said of that eviction, noting that he and his partner called the county’s Adult Protective Services to help the woman.
In another recent case, Cohen arrived at a duplex where one family had been given permission to stay for a few days while another, with young children, had been ordered out. He talked to the bank’s lawyer and said both families should be given the same treatment.
Although some jurisdictions around the country, including Cook County, Ill., have suspended foreclosure evictions, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has not. As sworn officers of the court, Cohen and Munoz said they have little leeway in carrying out the evictions.
On this morning, they gave Enciso a few more minutes to get his things, then told the locksmith to change the locks.
Then they signed the house over to Ryan Quintana, who works for a real estate agency that represents several banks.
Quintana seemed nervous as he signed the forms. “This is my first one . . . my first eviction,” he said, adding that he hopes this business will augment his other job, selling tequila. “It’s never comfortable kicking somebody out of their house.”
He also said that he had visited Enciso, the man being evicted, a few months earlier to offer him money to get out -- an inducement known as “cash for keys.” Quintana said he warned the man to stop paying rent.
But Quintana does not speak Spanish, and Enciso apparently did not understand him. So instead of being paid to leave his home, a clearly distressed Enciso was forced to carry his possessions out in his bare feet as the deputies watched.
Munoz nodded sympathetically. “I wouldn’t know what cash for keys meant if I didn’t do this job,” he said.
But the deputies did not have time to tarry. They had 10 more evictions to do. The rest were routine -- insofar as it is ever routine to bust into recently abandoned homes, survey the sad mixture of broken toys and children’s shoes left behind, search for trespassers and then move on.
Some of the houses were left in relatively decent shape.
Others had clearly been trashed, perhaps in rage.
At one house, an agent who was representing the bank that had foreclosed breathed a sigh of relief when Munoz and Cohen told him the house was empty.
He was prepared to confront the family, he said. They had young children and the last time he had seen them, they said they had nowhere to go.
Entering one particularly unkempt house, Munoz nodded and announced one of his cardinal rules: Never open the refrigerator. Especially if it is unplugged.
At another house, Cohen, seeing that the locksmith was having trouble, leaned over, took the man’s hammer and helped him break the lock. Cohen has seen it done so often that he’s become an expert.
At some houses, Cohen and Munoz murmured to each other like partners in an interior design firm, discussing how they might move a wall here, put in a fountain there.
At their second-to-last stop, the former owners had carved a heart into the concrete outside the front door. In the heart, they had engraved their names: Nicole and Omar. The deputies stepped over the heart without commenting -- they have learned to steel themselves against the emotions that their job can evoke.
Inside, the house had been completely stripped. Every last item of value -- all the fixtures, the water heater, the counters and even the furnace -- was gone.
Back in the car, Cohen sighed.
Even on a day when he doesn’t have to put any children on the street, he said, carrying out evictions makes him think about how insecure life can be.
“Can I imagine being in this situation?” he said. “I often think about what it would be like.”
But there was no time to waste. The deputies got in the car and moved on to the last house.