James, Adams Look Into City’s Seizure Of Properties

Ms. Saunders' house
Ms. Saunder’s home, 1217 Dean st, is a well-kept brownstone building in a rapidly gentrified neighborhood in Crown Heights (Photo by Tsubasa Berg)
Public Advocate Letitia James

Both Public Advocate and State Attorney General candidate Letitia James and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams are looking into the City’s seizure of over 60 Brooklyn-based properties – including those of seniors whose mortgages are paid off and whose properties are in good to immaculate condition.

As was revealed last week by KCP, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) are using the Third Party Transfer (TPT) program to seize the properties and scores of units, spanning Central Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Kensington and Flatbush, under the veil of foreclosure and with questionable due process.

The TPT program, or the so-called “tenant protection program,” designates qualified sponsors as partners with HPD [the city] to purchase and rehabilitate distressed, vacant, or occupied multi-family properties in order to improve and preserve housing affordable to low-to moderate-income households.

Among the properties seized and foreclosed on was that of 74-year-old Marlene Saunders, whose fully paid-off 100+ year old three-story brownstone at 1217 Dean Street on a rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights block was taken from her with seemingly no notice. The brownstone has been in her family for over 30 years, and was free from loans and mortgage, and had no Department of Buildings (DOB) violations. The brownstone has been appraised at over $2.2 million.

After both KCP and City Council Member Robert Cornegy (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant, Northern Crown Heights) intervened, HPD blamed Saunders for a mistaken error and gave the deed back to her.

Two days later KCP received another call – this time from Brooklyn resident McConnell Dorce, 69, who similarly received notification he lost his fully paid off four-unit property at 373 Rockaway Parkway in East New York to the city over an alleged outstanding property and maintenance tax bill. Dorce bought the property back in 1975 for $25,000, and both his son and grandson occupy one of the units. It is now is valued at about $1 million.

Then KCP learned of a 23-page court document, with more than 60 properties bundled together as part of a larger foreclosure judgement presided over by Kings County Supreme Court Judge Mark Partnow on Dec. 14, 2017 just two weeks before Christmas.

According to an HPD spokesperson, Juliet Pierre-Antoine, the program aims to help homeowners remain in their homes despite the fact they have targeted two seniors of color for foreclosures.

“Simply put, TPT is triggered through the accrual of arrears in the form of unpaid property taxes, water bills, etc. along with maintenance violations that mark the property as ‘distressed’. The program is intended to be a tenant protection program to correct financial and physical conditions, and allow residents to live in a safe rent-regulated home. Under TPT, our goal is to work with building owners and tenants at every step,” said Pierre-Antoine.

Mr. Dorce
Mr. McConnell Dorce, a house-owner in East New York received a foreclosure notice on his paid-off property from the City’s Department of Housing and Preservation Development under a non-profit Third Party Transfer program. (Photo by Tsubasa Berg)

But Dorce’s Attorney Yolande Nicholson, who has been specializing in the area of  foreclosure defense and prevention for more than 10 years, said she has never seen the judicial process that was used by the city to get Dorce’s and other properties from their owners – all of whom she suspects own their properties outright without mortgages, and owed little if any in actual real property taxes to the City. 

Even the names used for the the plaintiff [the suing party] and the defendant [the person being sued] was not simply fictitious [made up], she said, they were nonsensical [a term used by lawyers and judges to mean that no logical or legal basis exist for the term or circumstance], she said.

Nicholson continues to be alarmed by  the fact that the property owners were rendered nameless and faceless by the city and the court’s proceedings. This taking of property and ownership would have probably disappeared in the Kings County court system and records if Saunders and Dorce didn’t cry out for help to the press and their community leaders, she said.

Nicholson noted that HPD championed its TPT program to KCP, after it  had divested 60 working families of their property ownership by essentially “profiling” these owners as slumlords, when clearly neither Saunders nor Dorce are slumlords — and their property is not distressed — under the banner of creating low-income rental units at these family homes and coops.

“The Court didn’t seem to require a scintilla of evidence by the fictitious plaintiff, Nicholson said. Why aren’t HPD, City Planning, Neighborhood Restore and their nonprofit development partners not focused on foreclosure prevention and community stabilization, instead of on community destabilization and divestment of City taxpayers of property ownership?” Nicholson asked.

Nicholson also questioned the basis for the HPD pushing TPT legislation through the Council in 2015, while improper foreclosures, evictions and displacement of black and brown working families continue in high numbers across the county.

“What I’ve seen so far in the two cases we have information on is that the maintenance charges and water and sewer charges were miniscule compared to the market or assessed value of the property. Where were the checks and balances between the city,  the DOF [Department of Finance] and the courts under the law to avoid the distress that was imposed on these two homeowners,” said Nicholson.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams

Adams said he is currently looking into the two cases, and at the city agency as a whole.

“It’s so important that we dig into what could be a truly serious problem for homeowners who are doing the right thing. My office has connected with impacted parties in this matter, and it’s clear a deeper investigation is warranted, both internally at HPD and independently,” said Adams.

Meanwhile community activist and president of 77th Police Precinct Community Council President James Caldwell is organizing a massive protest outside the HPD offices at 100 Gold Street in Manhattan for this Wednesday.

“Black homeowners with no mortgage are being scammed by HPD. Homes are being taken. People in Brooklyn are being ripped off by HPD,” said Caldwell.