City Takes Property From Working Class Latinos

19 Kingsland Avenue (Center) in East Williamsburg. Photo by Kelly Mena.

Editor’s Note: The following is the eighth of a KCP investigative series by reporters Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt on how New York City is taking paid off properties from longtime small property owners, including black and brown seniors, and giving them to connected non-profit and for-profit developers as gentrification sweeps across Brooklyn.

Yudy Ventura, 52, a bookkeeper, and her husband Julio, a truck driver, sit in their modest, well-kept living room surrounded by their fellow Hispanic neighbors and recount stories of Christmases past – hard times and good times. But now these six tenant families at 19 Kingsland Avenue face losing thousands of dollars of their life savings and all the equity they have in the building through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Third Party Transfer program (TPT).

And to add insult to injury, the large non-profit St. Nick’s Alliance at 2 Kingsland Avenue across the street – who they thought was helping them retain their equity in the building – has become their new landlord.

“We raised our kids here. We are working people. We want to stay in our homes. We’ve been here for decades. They [ St. Nick’s Alliance and city Department of Finance] told us that we needed to pay and needed to pay and we did pay, so why did they still transfer our building?” said Ventura.

The residents at 19 Kingsland Avenue have a similar story as the other three property owners KCP has revealed as part of the city’s larger real estate scandal involving multiple city agencies in the de Blasio Administration and the city council.

The similarities include the residents owning the properties free and clear with no mortgage, having paid thousands of dollars in property tax arrears that were never credited to their account, being shuffled from one city agency to another in paying money and bringing the properties up to date without even knowing they no longer owned the properties in question.

In this case, the residents have no major building violations and the next door neighbor testified that the building has always been well-maintained and they have been great neighbors. However, in 2015 they received an in-rem foreclosure action notice from DOF. Following the notice, Ventura personally went down to the DOF office to enter into an installment agreement for the taxes and that August also entered into an installment agreement to pay back water bills.

Yudy Ventura with three other shareholders of the co-op at 19 Kingsland Avenue in East Williamsburg.

The crunch of meeting the installments became overwhelming for the residents, which included two retired seniors, one of whom was on fixed income.

Antonio Reynoso
City Council Member Antonio Reynoso

As a result, through working with Samuel Chiera from Brooklyn Legal Services, Alex Rodriguez, community organizer for City Council Member Antonio Reynoso (D-Williamsburg, Bushwick) and St. Nicks, they were able to enter into a new installment agreement with the DOF in 2017.

From Nov. 2017  to Aug. 31, 2018, the tenants have bank and documentation that they have paid $61,050, catching up on all their back and current property taxes to date, but the money was never credited to their account.

On Aug. 10, 2018, Ventura received an email from Chiera saying that Reynoso’s office already spoke to  HPD and that they needed a copy of the debt from DOF and DEP (Department of Environmental Protection – the agency handling the water bill), expenses for the last two years, a budget projection and the last six months of bank statements, which Ventura and the shareholders provided to him at a meeting on Sept. 1, 2018. Chiera said he would provide the information to Reynoso’s office and talk to HPD so they can give tenants more time to make a loan or sell one apartment to meet the past water bill, Ventura said.

Unbeknownst to all these tenants, while they were doing all this is that they no longer owned the building.  That’s because 19 Kingsland Avenue was part of a bundled foreclosure judgement that also included about 60 other properties across the borough before Kings County Supreme Court Judge Mark Partnow on Dec. 14, 2017 – just two weeks before Christmas.

Despite bank documentation and email correspondences that KCP reviewed, HPD inists the property was eligible for transfer because the owner had delinquent DOF and DEP charges, and defaulted on payment agreements with both agencies.

While outreach to the owner began in 2015, the building/managing agent did not engage with HPD until July 2018. In a continued effort to help owners seize the opportunity to remove themselves from the program, HPD informed the owner/owner representative of the need to be current on the payment agreements in the months leading up to the TPT transfer. On August 2nd, the managing agent informed HPD that she reached out to DOF and DEP regarded the defaulted agreements, and was short of the required funds needed to satisfy the minimum amount due for the agreements, according to HPD.

Despite the tenants having written documentation and receipts from DOF that they paid consistantly and are up to date on their property taxes as of Aug. 2018, HPD inisists the tenants have been in default status since Oct. 2017 and owe the DOF $50,358.

Ventura and her neighbors of almost 20 years contend, that they never received notice that their property was ever in foreclosure until last month, when they came home to a flier under the door that alerted them to the City’s TPT Program.

The 6-unit, three-story building is said to be worth about $2.4 million in a developing neighborhood that has a five story multi-building complex next door and a high-end grocery store on the same block. The shareholders took ownership of the home back in the 80’s when the neighborhood was full of Latino families and native New Yorkers.

According to their website, St. Nick’s Alliance is a non-profit that focuses on affordable housing with a portfolio that includes 2,000 developed units of affordable housing and management of more than 1,400 units for low- and moderate- income families and special needs populations, as well as fighting against displacement.

The tenants contends that they were duped by the city and their “advisors” into losing their property. Specifically the group charges, St. Nick’s Alliance with the mismanagement of the entire situation. The organization had intimate access to the property’s finances and hosted the monthly meetings on the property tax issues of the shareholders. St. Nick’s though a non-profit, also acts as housing management company.

Several calls to St. Nick’s Alliance and Brooklyn Legal Services were not returned at post time.

KCP called and emailed a number of questions and documentation concerning 19 Kingsland Avenue as well as 2015-16 legislation relating to the TPT program and received the following response from Reynoso Communications Liason Kristina Naplatarski, “19 Kingsland Ave did have building code violations. They were included in TPT because of outstanding tax and water debt. Therefore, this piece of legislation does not apply to them.”