$800k grant to further combat deed theft

New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Associated Press / Richard Drew

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Feb. 12 announced an $800,000 grant to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Center for New York City Neighborhoods as part of an anti-displacement program aimed at increasing awareness of scams and deed theft in vulnerable neighborhoods.

The program uses settlement funds obtained by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and includes a Homeowner Help Desk and a grassroots “support your neighbor” outreach campaign.

The OAG’s expansion of its “Protect Our Homes” initiative is a part of the New York State Anti-Displacement Learning Network, a $10 million program from Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. (Enterprise) that works to preserve community stabilization and allows residents to remain in their homes in 10 municipalities and counties across the state.

“COVID-19 has exposed and expanded the economic pressures New Yorkers were already under, and homeowners in gentrified areas throughout New York City continue to be targeted in schemes designed to steal their homes,” James said.

“Deed theft is a crime that threatens to rip away homeownership and perpetuates a terrible cycle of displacement,” she added. “This initiative is critical to helping New Yorkers stay in their homes, and my office will continue to work alongside our government and community partners to combat these predatory and heartless crimes.”

James said the anti-displacement network grant is a dual-track program aimed at protecting homeowners at risk of financial distress, foreclosure, and displacement in South/Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and the Northeastern Bronx.

Using data analysis, the attorney general said the program will identify individual owners at higher risk of becoming the target of scammers and provide targeted outreach to these homeowners.

Further, she said the anti-displacement network grant will support the expansion of the Homeowner Help Desk, which will be staffed by nonprofit housing experts.

In addition to individual outreach, the program includes a comprehensive outreach campaign to provide communities with the information and resources needed to protect themselves and their neighbors against scams, James said.

She said the Homeowner Help Desk will tailor its outreach and services to the most at-risk communities of color, focusing on the specific need to disrupt patterns of fraud, speculation and displacement, as well as protect home equity built over decades.

“New York City takes the threat of deed theft and scams seriously, and we want to make sure struggling homeowners get the help they need to keep their homes, maintain safe, quality housing, and build equity that can be passed on to the next generation,” said HPD Commissioner, Louise Carroll. “Especially in light of the economic effects of COVID-19, we are glad to have the support of Attorney General Letitia James as we work with the Center and so many others to actively reach out to vulnerable homeowners.”

“We are thrilled to work in partnership with the OAG, HPD, and Enterprise to deploy our Homeowner Help Desk so that New Yorkers can protect their homes, assets, and hard-earned equity from scams and displacement,” said Christie Peale, chief executive officer/executive director of Center for NYC Neighborhoods. “The Help Desk is an especially critical tool for supporting and stabilizing communities of color, reducing the racial wealth gap, and empowering homeowners and their neighbors.”

Elizabeth Zeldin, director of Enterprise Community Partners, said “Enterprise is pleased to fund this important strategy to ensure that homeowners have the assistance and resources to stay in their homes.

“The ‘Protect our Homes’ expansion is a critical strategy to prevent deed theft and scams and to promote stable homeownership in key NYC neighborhoods,” she said.

James said teed theft has become a common tool of career criminals and unscrupulous real estate developers to illegally obtain real estate, so they can sell it at a huge profit in high-demand housing markets, like Brooklyn.

“This illegal scheme especially affects people of color, the elderly and other vulnerable homeowners who are scammed into signing over the deeds to their homes to con artists,” she said.

“Deed theft usually happens when scammers forge deeds to look like they purchased the home, or when homeowners are tricked into signing their homes over to a scammer without knowing what they are doing,” she added. “Scammers then seek to evict the homeowner and sell the house to a third party at a significant profit.”

In January 2020, Attorney General James launched the office’s “Protect Our Homes” initiative, a program that uses prevention and enforcement actions to combat deed theft in New York City.

The OAG also formed an interagency deed theft taskforce with members including the district attorneys from all five boroughs in New York City and the Office of the Sheriff of the City of New York.

The anti-displacement program builds off these efforts by focusing on the neighborhoods most at-risk of deed fraud, enlisting community members to talk about deed theft with their neighbors and educating community members about how to spot deed fraud scams.

Those who believe they have experienced deed theft are encouraged to contact the OAG by calling the help line at 1-800-771-7755, emailing [email protected], or filling out the online complaint form.

“Protecting homeowners from deed fraud, theft, and other tactics used to displace long-time is a priority for our office,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who represents the 20th Senate District in Brooklyn.

“I’m grateful to the Attorney General, HPD, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods and Enterprise Community Partners for supporting this critical work, and for building on our efforts to stabilize communities in Central Brooklyn,” added Myrie whose grand-mother hailed from Jamaica.

Assemblymember Diana Richardson, who represents the 43rd Assembly District, encompassing Crown Heights in Brooklyn, said “homeownership creates stability, security, and generational wealth for individuals and their families throughout our great state.

“I proudly support these programs being implemented by the Attorney General to keep families in their homes by further protecting them from the many bad actors seeking to displace them for the sole reason of turning a profit,” said the daughter of Aruban and St. Martin immigrants.

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