Who says you can’t beat city hall – and at the same time become a case study for government overreach concerning property rights.
Ms. Marlene Saunders, 74, officially got the deed back to her property at 1217 Dean Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant this week after four months of fighting with city agencies over ownership of the 3-story brownstone.
“I am very happy that my sons and I, and the members of my community have rallied together to make this happen because at first it looked like there was no window out but my son Paul was determined to find a way out, because you just can’t take someone’s house out of nowhere,” said Saunders.
Saunders was the victim of a so-called clerical error last year when she nearly lost her fully paid-off home to the city’s controversial Third Party Transfer Program (TPT) under the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
The TPT 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.
The incident unfolded last September when Saunders received notice that HPD was taking the property under the city’s TPT program. The notice was news to the Saunders family who was unaware such a program even existed and had religiously been up-to-date on their property and water bill for more than 30 years.
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.
Eventually, the Saunders family was able to get their account credited for payment and get their property back only after City Councilman Robert Cornegy, Jr. (D-Northern Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant) stepped in to review all the documentation and ascertained that it appeared the city was trying to take their property for no clear reason.
The 100-year-old brownstone with famed architecture and no building violations was part of a transfer of more than 60 properties and scores of units, spanning Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx who all received a foreclosure judgement on them for the same date. The transfer was part of the tenth round of the TPT program, that takes place every three years.
However, the happy-ending proved to be a bittersweet moment for Cornegy and the local community, who in recent years has been facing increased gentrification.
“Now we see property values escalating, and it seems and feels like with all of these programs happening there is a little bit of a land grab taking place. I only have a few more years in office left, but I am going out kicking and screaming because I want to continue to build capacity to have wealth and transfer wealth in our communities,” said Cornegy.
Cornegy announced that he plans on introducing legislation aimed at removing Class 1 properties, one- to three-unit residential properties, from eligibility into the TPT Program and to raise the threshold of percentage of assessed value to the arrears owed, which is currently at 15%, so that minimal arrears no longer deem a building “distressed.”
The Central Brooklyn lawmaker also announced plans to establish a task force aimed at reviewing “with a fine toothed comb” all properties taken in the most recent round of TPT program transfers to ensure that all properties seized actually met the programs criteria. The task force is expected to convene as early as next week.
“I will report that there was an emergency meeting between myself and HPD this morning, to demand from my perspective that we don’t go any further until legislation that we’ve asked to see that would have excluded Ms. Saunders property and the loose term of distressed is more clearly defined. And that the thresholds for taking properties is raised to a level that substantiates these kind of actions on the City’s behalf,” said Cornegy.
Currently, there are at least three more property owners in the middle of legal proceedings fighting for their buildings back across Brooklyn.