For most of the last decade, the rate of mortgage foreclosure cases in the Chicago metropolitan area has been relatively stable. But in 2006 the numbers began to spike—from 13,000 filings in 1999 to an estimated 43,000 in 2008, according to statistics from Cook County, which includes Chicago and its suburbs and is the country's second largest county, with 5 million residents. As the crisis grew around him, Thomas Dart, Cook County's sheriff, says he began to notice that more and more of those being evicted were caught completely by surprise—many had not been notified of court proceedings, as the law requires. In some cases, the residents were renters and unaware that their landlords had stopped paying the mortgage. In October, Dart made a controversial decision—and national headlines—when he refused to perform any more foreclosure evictions. His plan, a countywide moratorium until new rules and safeguards could be put into place, drew criticism from the state's banks. "The Illinois banking industry is working hard to help troubled homeowners in many ways, but Sheriff Dart's declaration of 'martial law' should not be tolerated," the Illinois Bankers Association said at the time. Dart, the banks and court officials reached a compromise later that same month. But according to the sheriff, it's a tenuous agreement at best. Dart, 46, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Nick Summers about the eviction process, being branded a vigilante and why he's unwilling to put some people out onto the streets. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What actually occurs during a typical eviction?
Thomas Dart: It's hard to explain; that's why I always encourage people to come out with me. Until you're physically out there, you can't really get the magnitude of what you're actually up to. It sounds like it's an antiseptic process, and it's anything but that. In the majority of the homes I was going into, there were always little kids around—I mean, really young kids, and we're taking them and putting them out on the street. A lot of them were seniors, and a lot of them had issues with dementia. Once again—we're taking them out to the street … Most of these neighborhoods are not good neighborhoods. Once [their belongings are] out on the street, we leave. While they're off looking for transportation, the few things they own are being stolen.
I tried to work arrangements with landlords and mortgage holders to get me more information as far as who was in there, so I could try to get social services to them and somewhat mitigate this. And I had no luck.
When did you begin to think there was something wrong with the system?
I can't emphasize enough how stunned people are. [Imagine] if you and your family are sitting in your house, watching TV on a Thursday night, and all of a sudden you hear a knock on the door. You go to answer it, thinking it's a neighbor, and instead it's me and six people in black suits and a battering ram telling you to get out of your house. It was that type of response I was getting at the door.
I got a bunch of stories. One in particular hit all the buttons. We went in, and standing in front of me is a young man, probably early 30s; he's holding two 6-month-olds in his hands, in their diapers, both of them have colds; he's got a 5-year-old, and an 11-year-old with his wife. And we're there to throw him out.
He pulls out a lease he'd signed, which was all valid and notarized. The lease was entered into after the foreclosure had occurred—the case had gone through the courts, but this landlord was such a rotten person he kept renting the place out. If not for the steps we'd put in place, this guy was out in the street with these little kids.
This kind of thing was happening a lot?
I can give you a hundred anecdotes. Whereas these things used to pop up once in a blue moon, this was happening all the time. The number of places we went to where people had no idea; where the occupants were not the right people; where [the banks had] given us the wrong location—they sent us once to evict someone from a vacant lot, where the house had burned down two years before. It is numbers, situations and scenarios that we had never seen.
What kind of reaction did you get, both from regular people and from other law-enforcement officials, when you decided to no longer perform evictions?
From regular people, I've never seen such an outpouring of gratitude. Which was really surprising to me, because in all honesty, this wasn't something where you had an alternative. This was so clearly wrong … seriously, this wasn't a close call. You just can't do this. From other law-enforcement people, it's been a mixed bag.
The Illinois Bankers Association accused you of "vigilantism."
I'm an attorney. I don't consider myself a constitutional scholar, but I did my work. They were calling me a vigilante because of cavalierly, in their mind, ignoring court orders. What I explained to them, and felt very strongly about, is that the one [constitutional] right that doesn't have a lot of disagreement over it is due process. People argue over guns and abortion, but they don't argue when it comes to due process. At a bare minimum, before you take someone's person or property, they get some type of notice. And it was so abundantly clear that we were taking most people's largest investment in their life without [anyone having told] them. [My critics] came out real aggressive right away; somebody filed a lawsuit, tried to hold me in contempt; they tried to take my law license. Now it's died down somewhat.
You testified before Congress on this topic in November. What was your goal?
To try to put a face on it. I was surrounded by people who were clearly experts in their field, but I was the only one there who was able to put a real face on what was happening out there, as opposed to what people are seeing on their ledgers and on the books. I could have gone on for hours with stories.
I think it had a real impact. I'm a former legislator, I'm not naive, but the senators I talked to, and a load of congressmen as well, all were very interested about what's going on in the street. Because the whole world is so removed from that. I was able to tell them, "No, no, here's what's really happening. The chaos you're talking about in the banking industry, I'm experiencing that same chaos in the street, and it's chaos that no one has ever seen before."
What's the current state of foreclosure evictions in Cook County?
I agreed to lift the moratorium when the court agreed to put together some safeguards to prevent these abuses from going on. A lot of people said, "OK, you're back in business." That couldn't be further from the truth. Since the moratorium supposedly ended with the agreement with the judges, I've had over 500 requests to conduct evictions, and I've only done 35, 36 of them. The safeguards we got put in place aren't retroactive; it is going to take us a year to shake out. Now, we're pretty much still at a standstill. We're not going ahead with [eviction requests] unless they're right, and most of them are not right.
This is the kind of issue you could run for higher office on. You also got a lot of attention last week, suing Craigslist on prostitution grounds. Have you thought about it?
It's funny, because it's a very valid question, because of the way the political world is. But I haven't really given it much thought. I tremendously enjoy what I'm doing, and we have so many more things we're working on here. We just have a real ambitious agenda.