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Deputies enforce foreclosure evictions

When residents have to leave their homes to let the banks take over, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department makes sure they go.

May 24, 2009|Jessica Garrison

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.

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