While the plight of homeowners affected by the real estate meltdown has been well-documented, renters too often fall under the radar. Although tenants' advocacy groups credit recently passed national legislation for including some protections, they charge that the new law only scratches the surface.

The number of renters being forced from their homes is on the rise as foreclosures increase. "We've seen a mass increase. I would say it's up by 50 percent," said Arlene Bradley, housing advocacy director of Housing Rights Inc. in Berkeley, Calif., a group that provides legal advice and counseling to renters in the greater San Francisco Bay area.

Illustration by: Matt MahurinPrior to the new legislation that went into effect last month, tenants were at the mercy of the lender, and the results could be very disruptive. Renters could be forced from their homes with a mere five days' notice in the state of Arizona, said William Deegan, executive director of the Phoenix-based American Tenants Association.

Under the new rule, which was passed May 20 and took effect immediately, an addendum to a broader housing bill addressing the foreclosure crisis, a lender who takes possession of a property or a new owner who buys the building at auction has to let a tenant stay for 90 days or until their lease is up. The rules are a bit different if someone is buying the property to live in; in that case, they can terminate a lease with 90 days' notice. "This guarantees 90 days," said Ed Josephson, director of litigation for South Brooklyn Legal Services in New York. "Before the law they could throw you out in the middle of your lease."

While those who work with renters across the country say the legislation is a vast improvement over the earlier status quo, they also call the law incomplete. Too often, renters are at the mercy of courts and a financial system ill-equipped to deal with their particular challenges. For one thing, a tenant is still more likely than not to lose his or her security deposit if the owner goes into foreclosure

"The problem is the bank isn't interested in dealing with you and the old owner is long gone," said Janet Portland, lawyer and author of Every Tenant's Legal Guide. While a tenant can take a landlord to small claims court, if they've declared bankruptcy — which is common — the renter is probably out of luck when it comes to collecting on a judgment.