The rights of owners and tenants in post-foreclosure property have been dramatically altered by new legislation signed by President Obama. On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed the “Helping Families Save Their Home Act,” which contained provisions to aid renters whose landlords go through foreclosure. Title VII of the Helping Families Act (the “Act”) is entitled “Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure” and generally requires the immediate successor-in-interest on foreclosed property to recognize the lease rights of existing tenants on the property. 

The Act applies to any property where there has been a foreclosure on a “federally-related mortgage loan or on any dwelling or residential real property” after May 20. “Federally-related mortgage loan” is defined in RESPA as being limited to mortgages on property “designed principally for the occupancy of from one to four families.” Therefore, the Act’s requirements apply only to residential, and not commercial, property. 

If there are “bona-fide-tenants” on the property that signed leases prior to the foreclosure, the Act appears to require landlords to recognize the remaining term of the lease, although there is some ambiguity in the text of the Act regarding whether a landlord may choose instead to require existing tenants to vacate on ninety-days notice. “Bona-fide tenant” is a defined term essentially meaning that the tenant’s lease was the product of an arms-length transaction. 

There are two situations under the Act where it is clear a post-foreclosure owner may require a tenant to vacate upon ninety-days notice. First, if the new owner sells a tenant’s unit to a purchaser who will occupy it as a primary residence, the owner may require the tenant to vacate after expiration of the notice.  Second, a tenant who does not have a lease or whose lease is terminable at will must also receive a ninety-day notice before being required to vacate. The Act does not displace any federal or state requirements for terminating subsidized tenancies, or any state laws that offer greater protections to tenants. If not renewed, the Act will expire on December 31, 2012. 

It is especially important for lenders to be aware of this new law, as many are becoming owners of real property through foreclosure proceedings. Anyone acquiring property post-foreclosure must carefully examine existing tenancies to ensure it recognizes leases or gives appropriate notice as required by the Act. Hopefully, better guidance will be offered in the near future concerning when a landlord may terminate an existing tenancy after giving proper notice.