The city today abruptly reversed a decision to take a senior citizen’s brownstone house on a gentrified Crown Heights block after pressure from City Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant, Northern Crown Heights) and Kings County Politics.
While the incident, in which the retired nurse, Marlene Saunders, 74, nearly lost her paid-off brownstone at 1217 Dean Street, resulted in a happy ending, Cornegy said it should serve as a red flag to other longtime brownstone owners in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn.
“Home-ownership is one of the most important ways a family is able to build and transfer wealth from one generation to the next. In that light, and with the ever-increasing cost of living in this city, preserving home ownership opportunities is critical in predominantly black and brown communities like ours,” said Cornegy.
The incident unfolded last month when Saunders received notice that the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) was taking the property under the city’s Third Party Transfer (TTF) program. The program designates qualified sponsors to purchase and rehabilitate distressed vacant and occupied multi-family properties in order to improve and preserve housing affordable to low-to moderate-income households.
This was news to Saunders’ family as their 100+ year old three-story brownstone with famed historical architecture has been in their family for more than 30 years, maintained immaculately and is free from loans, mortgage and had no current Department of Buildings violations. What’s more the property is located on a rapidly gentrifying block and has been appraised at over $2.2 million.
The Saunders family never heard about the TPT program and had paid their required amount of property taxes on April 30, 2018 to make sure the building was in good standings.
They later found out that while the payment was deducted from their personal account, it didn’t reflect that payment for over 120 days to their property tax account with the city.
In the meantime, the city used their in-rem process (Property Taxes and other property related charges that are late) to transfer ownership from Saunders to a Third Party because of a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) water bill of $3,792.20.
This too was news to the Saunders family as there was no DEP documented information about the threshold in place for an over $1000 limit in which you could lose your property due to the program. There was no documents stating the reason the property could be foreclosed, and for what amount.
Even though the water bill was not in a foreclosure status, the family also went ahead and eliminated the total bill September 12, 2018 to clear any water charges.
But after contacting HPD, the family was told the property was already in a transfer process to Neighborhood Restore a Non Profit third party through a court proceeding that Ms. Saunders was not made aware of so she could attend and defend what is rightfully hers.
After KCP and Cornegy were called, they both reviewed all the documentation and ascertained that it appeared the city was trying to take their property for no clear reason.
Late today,a HPD spokesperson emailed both KCP and informed Cornegy that, “Upon investigation, it appears the owner made a mistake in applying the necessary payment to the wrong property. It is obvious this was a simple error and so we will reverse the transfer so that the owner can sustain ownership of the property.”
While the Saunders family will now get their property back, Cornegy said there was at least one other property in Brooklyn he knows of where there is a similar situation, and perhaps more across the city. He is also vexed that HPD blames the family for the error when all their documents point to it being an error on the city’s part.
“As both the elected council member for this district and the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, preserving these opportunities by fighting for homeowners is something I take very seriously,” said Cornegy.
“The issue of deed fraud and deed theft in this city is pervasive and I have spent my time in the Council vehemently advocating for laws and policies to prevent it. We must as a City take seriously the need to protect homeowners from threats to these valuable assets, and not take actions that would only serve to intensify this burden,” said Cornegy.