No regulations require that banks let homeowners know when they change their minds about a foreclosure. So they rarely do, according to housing court judges, homeowners' lawyers and academics who study foreclosure problems. "The banks do not answer inquiries, they do not answer phone calls, they do not answer letters," says Judge Patrick Carney of the Buffalo, New York, Housing Court. His zombie-title caseload has swollen in the past few years to well into the hundreds. "The whole situation is surreal," he says.
Marlon Sheafe, a 55-year-old who drove trucks for Sara Lee Corp for 25 years, was sentenced to probation in May. The citation from the Cleveland Housing Court says that if he doesn't fix the problems with the investment property he bought in 2005, the grandfather of three, who suffers from advanced cancer, will go to jail in May 2014.
Ocwen Financial Corp, the servicer of Sheafe's mortgage, foreclosed on the house in 2008, when Sheafe was hospitalized with congestive heart failure and later lost his job, forcing him into default. That was the last he heard about the house until a year and a half ago, when he received a summons to appear in Cleveland Housing Court for code infractions on the property: cracked steps, shredded siding, weeds as tall as the doors. There was also a $300 lawn-mowing bill.
A few weeks later, Sheafe appeared at the drab, brown-paneled chambers of the Cleveland Housing Court, packed, as it is every Tuesday and Thursday lately, with other people in his situation. Sheafe expected his appearance that day would clear up what he thought was a big mistake. Instead he left with the order to get the house up to code.