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As Foreclosures Rise, Sheriff’s Department Handles Evictions

Due to the sensitive nature of their work, the San Diego Sheriff’s deputies who were interviewed in the ride-along asked not to be fully identified.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: Reporter Sharon Heilbrunn introduces us to a woman trying to save her house from foreclosure.

— After 14 years with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Cpl. Ingram has eviction down to a science.

First, he knocks loudly on the door. Then comes the opening statement, which changes slightly depending on the address:

“Sheriff’s Department. Court-ordered eviction, one-one-eight-five-five, anyone inside, come to the door now!”

If no one answers, Ingram gets a set of keys from the landlord or new owner and opens the door. What happens next is what makes the job interesting.

“Of the 6,000 evictions I’ve done, I’ve probably only put my hands on three people —I know for a fact, only three people in the 14 years I’ve been doing this, because they were belligerent or irate or not responding to my demands to leave the property, so I had to physically grab them by the arm and remove them from the premises,” Ingram said. “That’s three over 6,000. It’s very rare, most people are very cooperative and we get this job done with a minimum of effort and distress to anyone.”

Initially, the keys to 11855 Arborlake Way don’t work and Ingram suspects the locks have been changed, but then the door opens and he yells into the seemingly empty home.

“Sheriff’s Department, anyone inside answer up!”

As Ingram enters and checks the three-bedroom house for occupants, his partner, Deputy Brown, posts an “eviction restoration notice” on the door. Eventually, Ingram returns. The house is vacant.

“It’s the cleanest eviction I’ve seen all day long,” he said.

“You know why?” said the landlord, a blonde woman wearing a green blouse who asked not to be identified. “Because this was a friend of mine.”

More than 36,000 homes in San Diego County are in foreclosure. In July alone, 8,031 homes received a foreclosure filing, the highest amount in San Diego since August 2008.

Locally, the hardest hit areas in July were Chula Vista — especially the East Lake area where one in 10 homes are distressed, and a corridor of land east of Interstate 15, including Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos and Mira Mesa. In July, Chula Vista’s 91914 ZIP code had the third most-active foreclosure rate in the United States, trailing only Orlando, Fla. (32823) and Las Vegas, Nev. (89131).

Statewide, initial notice of defaults in California spiked 15 percent from the previous month, and California registered the nation’s second highest state foreclosure rate for the third month in a row. One in every 123 California housing units received a foreclosure filing in July, nearly three times the national average. Scheduled auctions in California were down 1 percent from the previous month, but bank repossessions were up 4 percent — leaving overall foreclosure activity up nearly 7 percent on a month-over-month basis.

Judi Behr is scared.

The mother of three is behind on her mortgage payments and knows she’s close to losing her home. She’s waiting to speak to a loan officer from JPMorgan Chase at a Housing Collaborative Clinic in Escondido and hoping to get some good news for a change.

“I have an 8 percent loan with Chase and I have not been able to make my payments for the last four to six months and I need some help,” she said. “My income has gone down and I would just like Chase to lower the interest rate, if only for a little while so that I don’t lose my home. I really don’t want to lose my home.”

An architectural photographer by trade, Behr said all of her clients have stopped calling. It’s impossible to take pictures of buildings that aren’t being built, so she’s started doing other things. Recently she’s been photographing senior assisted-living facilities and selling items online. She’s also sold her car and taken on two roommates. She shares a room with her 9-year-old son, sleeping in a bunk bed.

“I’ve been trying to talk to Chase since December and they don’t talk to me. I’ve made hundreds of phone calls to Chase, literally hundreds. I have a notebook with the date and who I spoke to and what was said. It’s just a blank, a void, there’s no information coming out of Chase regarding whether or not they can help me. Nothing at all,” she said “The bill collection people call and they’re terrible. They’re horrible. They’re mean. Some of the things they’ve said to me like, you know, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ and ‘I have a job.’ Stuff like that.”

Behr isn’t a new homeowner. At one time, she used to own three properties in Ohio. But when the elderly couple living next door to her father decided to leave, she sold them to buy what Behr lovingly calls “her half-million-dollar shack.”

“I bought it for $350,000,” Behr said. “And I was happy actually, to get that loan when I got it, because I was making a lot more money. Since I’m making much less now, it doesn’t look as good. And I’m OK with 8 percent, but just not right now. So if they want to bump it back up, that’s fine.

“Just give me a little bit of relief,” she said. “If they could just reduce the payment, I know I could make it.”

So far, the day has been uneventful for Deputies Ingram and Brown. They’ve done about eight of the 17 evictions on their list and are right on schedule. Evictions are done by appointment, Monday through Thursday. People aren’t generally evicted on Fridays, Ingram said, unless it’s a “special circumstance.” The plaintiff or a representative of the trustee must be present when the deputies arrive. Otherwise the eviction is cancelled and must be rescheduled. Usually, Ingram said, they’ll give the plaintiff a few minutes to show, but after that it’s on to the next house.

Eviction No. 9 is in Hillcrest and, as soon as the door opens, it’s obvious the tenant is not prepared to be kicked out. A few items are boxed up, but the apartment is still a long way from being vacated. Plus, the man isn’t dressed.

“Can you put some pants on, please, sir?” Ingram asks. “We’re on a schedule here.”

Brown soon escorts the former tenant outside while Ingram checks the rooms. After clearing the apartment, Ingram joins them.

“OK. Landlord or representative,” Ingram said, pointing to a man in a white shirt, brown tie and brown slacks. He then points at the former tenant, now dressed in baggy cargo shorts and a blue polo shirt, but still barefoot. “Guy who used to live here. Here’s the deal. You were supposed to be out by midnight last night, so the eviction has now been concluded. We’ve turned the property over to him. Now, you’re going to be allowed to go back in there and get your things at their behest, OK? It’s up to them when they let you back in.

“If they can’t do it right now and you have to come back tomorrow or the next day, the ball’s in their court and they get to make the schedule, OK? You need to contact them for them to allow you to come back and get your things. If you go back on the property without their permission, you’ll be arrested for trespassing because you’re no longer allowed here. They have to allow you by law an opportunity to come back and get your things, but you get one shot at it. Bring your truck and your buddies, get everything all out at one time, because you don’t get to come one hour every day for the next 10 days,” he said.

The former tenant asks if he can take some of his stuff now, and Ingram refers him to the landlord. The deputies have completed their task, and as long as both parties are working together, Ingram and Brown have other places to be.

“We try to be as compassionate as we can, and as professional as we can and get the job done. And we have to please both the plaintiff and the defendant, so we’re just out here trying to keep the peace between these people and go home safe at the end of the day,” Ingram said.

Whenever unemployment rises, so do foreclosures. San Diego's last major housing crash came in the early 1990s, as thousands of local defense workers lost their jobs when the end of the Cold War also ended much of the federal spending on defense. As unemployment in San Diego reached 9.9 percent in January 1993, foreclosures helped push home prices so low they did not recover until 1998.

But in July 2009, unemployment reached 10.1 percent – suggesting the increase in foreclosures could be greater this time.

“The foreclosure moratorium was supposed to slow down the banks,” said Mark Goldman, a lecturer at SDSU and mortgage broker with Cobalt Financial. “Owner-occupied homes were supposed to get an extra 60 days but all that does is postpone the inevitable. We saw a gap between the notice of defaults and the trustee sales. These are now going to pick up.

“If you have income or the value of your home increases, you can sell. Unemployment is the tip of the iceberg, underemployment is cause a lot of problems too.”

Goldman said foreclosures have now crossed over from the subprime market into more conventional loans. Banks, he said, are trying to help people through loan modifications and forbearances, but if the household’s primary earner stops making money, little can be done.

“Borrowers are afraid of re-defaulting. If someone’s out of work and not able to make payments a loan modification, even if they’re able to get one, it just postpones the foreclosure. I think (banks and the loan modification process) are improving but they’ve got a tiger by the tail.”

Gabe del Rio, vice president of homeownership for Community Housing Works, said a lot of home owners become depressed at the thought of moving out of their home. They “fall in love with the house,” he said, and can’t bear the idea of losing it.

“We see a lot of people in distress, severe distress. There are a lot of people in our office crying every day. Our counselors try to identify issues with people and make sure they know that this is a financial situation, it’s not who they are, it’s not their health, it’s not their family and that there are far more important things to focus on,” Del Rio said.

“Sometimes we remind people that Donald Trump’s been bankrupt several times. But the fact remains that people take this very seriously. Luckily we haven’t had, like in some areas, and I know brother and sister agencies in other areas have dealt with suicides, and murders. I, myself, actually, discovered a suicide victim in a short sale home. The man killed himself, he was so depressed about his short sale.

“It’s really a tragic thing to see and we’re here to demystify that, to put people on a plan that if they work toward there’s nothing to be upset about. We remind them that no matter what you can rebuild this,” he said.

The final residence of the day is a house on Mockingbird Drive.

“Sheriff’s Department. Court ordered eviction, seven-six-seven-two. Any one inside come to the door now,” Ingram said, rapping on the metal security door with a small flashlight. No one seems home and the keys don’t work, so the locksmith tries to drill out the lock.

“Figures, the last one of they day, huh?” Ingram asks his partner.

“Yep,” Brown says, as the locksmith’s drill snaps.

“Aw, you didn’t get the industrial bit,” Ingram said. He guides the locksmith to a door in the back and in less than three seconds Ingram is inside. Brown posts the notice on the door, Ingram confirms the house is empty, and the pair is finished with their work.

“We completed 17 evictions today. We’ve had a pretty decent day. No one was hurt, and we didn’t make too many people cry. In fact, we didn’t make anyone cry,” Ingram said.

“It’s a terrible economy out here. And we at the Sheriff’s Department try and do our job as compassionately as we can. We understand people have concerns or problems and we don’t try to come around and make it any worse on people, but we do have to enforce a court order. That’s our job and we do that to the best of our abilities, without making anybody feel demeaned or feeling like that they’re a lesser person because we’re here doing this on them. If we had our druthers, we’d rather not be doing it, but we’re the law-enforcement arm of the law and that’s what we have to do.”

A few minutes after the deputies leave, a car pulls up outside the house and a woman gets out. She walks up to the garage and confronts the two strangers standing in the garage.

“Are you the people evicting my parents?” she said.

Her name in Michelle Miner and she grew up in this house. Her parents had lived there 34 years. Miner said her mother suffered a heart attack due to the stress of foreclosure proceedings, which have been going on since November. Miner said they’ve gone to lawyers seeking help and have a case pending in federal court to save the home.

Tonight, she said, her parents will stay with her, her husband, and three children in their three-bedroom apartment, just across Highway 163. Miner and her husband will sleep on an air mattress. Her parents will get their bed.

In the meantime, family and friends arrive to help move some of the large plants out of the backyard. Miner’s mother, Janet, uproots a sago palm from the backyard with a shovel. Her brother, Brian —who also lives in the house — carries out two huge, hanging staghorn ferns.

The avocado tree in the backyard -- which must be 30 feet tall -- was started from a pit, Janet said. But it’s staying, obviously. As is the magnolia tree in the front yard which was planted after Michelle and Brian’s grandfather died. On the side of the house, the handprints of Michelle’s three children are memorialized in concrete.

“Who’d thought it’d turn out like this? This is hard,” Miner said, shaking her head. “Just amazing.”

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