Brown: Tenants stood their ground, changed landscape for renters

Sheriff Tom Dart after he suspended evictions from buildings that have been foreclosed on. Outside 4914 N. Spaulding in 2008 are Dart (left) and tenants Mario Hernandez; Gabriela Maciel, with her son Diego Franco, and Maria Cruz. | Sun-Times file photo

The criminal conviction for which Catalin Stoian faces sentencing Thursday before U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman is in many ways just your garden variety mortgage fraud case.

Developer buys apartment building. Developer obtains loans using inflated appraisals. Developer defaults on loans and absconds with funds.

Coupled with the greedy, careless banks that allowed this to happen over and over again, that was a major story line of the mortgage crisis that tanked the American economy in 2009.

But there was one big difference this time.

The little people who were the real victims in this case, the tenants who lived in the Albany Park apartment building at the center of Stoian’s scheme, stood their ground when the banks tried to evict them because of his failure to pay the mortgage.

OPINION

And from that simple act of courage, an amazing chain of events was set in motion that shapes Chicago still today.

It started in 2008 when the tenants who lived in seven apartments at 4914 N. Spaulding received notices on their doors informing them they were being evicted and had just two weeks to move.

The tenants, mostly Mexican immigrants, were stunned. All of them knew they were up to date on paying their rent.

A management company hired by the banks to take control of the premises immediately began using extra-legal methods to oust them: shutting off the heat, trying to change the locks on the doors in the dead of night, tactics common at the time.

The tenants sought help from a local community organization, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council.

The community group, which has since changed its name to Communities United, discovered the tenants had been caught up in a scam.

Stoian and Mihail Stancu, a pair of Romanian businessmen, pretended on paper to convert the building to condominiums, essentially selling the units to themselves.

That allowed them to take out inflated mortgages using fraudulent appraisals on each of the seven apartments, grabbing $1.8 million total.

They sent the money to Romania, and when things got hot, Stoian headed there himself.

That could have been the end of the story.

But the Communities United folks proved as determined as the tenants.

They arranged for the building to be placed in court receivership, allowing the tenants to remain as long as they paid their rent.

They also convinced Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to adopt a policy that drew national attention when he refused to carry out evictions of tenants stemming from mortgage foreclosures until lenders started doing a better job of giving tenants due legal process.

Then Communities United went further, using the Spaulding case as Exhibit A in a citywide campaign that culminated in passage of the Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance, an important update on the rights of tenants and responsibilities of lenders in foreclosure situations.

More recently, the group purchased 18 Northwest Side buildings, including the Spaulding property, through an innovative program using foreclosed Fannie Mae properties to preserve them as affordable housing.

“That all came from this building,” said Diane Limas, volunteer board president at Communities United.

“It shows what people can do when they stick together and fight for what is right,” she said. “They never gave up.”

In 2011, Stoian and Stancu were charged with defrauding the lenders. Stancu pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 24 months in prison. Stoian voluntarily returned to Chicago and was convicted in a bench trial.

Prosecutors argue Stoian should receive a “significant sentence,” pegging his federal guideline range at 151 to 188 months in prison. Defense attorneys have asked for him to be released for time served — now at 21 months.

All I care is that the judge understands there were real victims in this case who, no thanks to Stoian, didn’t allow themselves to be victims.

Previously from Chicago