There are people who are late on their mortgages, and then there’s Paul Stenstrom.
The Palm Harbor man hasn’t paid a cent on his home since 2002, back when gas cost $1.61 a gallon, Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and Kelly Clarkson was the first American Idol. Now, 12 years later, the world has moved on. Stenstrom has not.
As of this week, he and his family were still in the house even as a bank pressed ahead with efforts to evict them.
“I understand it looks bad,” Stenstrom says of his decade-plus of payment-free living. “But it was wholly legal.”
Stenstrom, 62, has benefited from a federal law that automatically stops all actions by creditors, including banks trying to foreclose, when a person declares bankruptcy. Between 2002 and last year, Stenstrom and his wife filed a total of 18 bankruptcy petitions to keep their house from being sold at public auction.
Bankruptcy officials have a term for people like the Stenstroms: serial filers.
“It’s one thing to file in 2003 because you lost your job and in 2007 because you had medical issues,” says Judge Michael Williamson of the U.S. bankruptcy court in Tampa. “That’s not the serial filer. The serial filer abuses come in the mortgage foreclosure cases where people want to live free in the house.”
The Justice Department doesn’t keep statistics on serial filers, but “someone with more than four cases, that would be unusual,” Williamson says.
Tampa Bay judges say they can’t remember many other local homeowners who have fended off foreclosure for more than a few years, let alone 12. The Pinellas-Pasco court system has sections in each county that deal exclusively with foreclosures “to move them along,” says Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady.
But there’s not much they can do when a delinquent homeowner heads to bankruptcy court.
“It’s very frustrating,” McGrady says.