By Errol T. Louis
Beware of New Predators
Immoral financial predators are a fact of life in New York, like subway rats. But the thieves who steal people’s homes deserve a special place in hell. For most of us, home is a financial anchor that represents a lifetime of sweat and hard work.
That economic base is getting eroded on a daily basis as a new and pernicious brand of fraud called deed theft sweeps low-income neighborhoods around the state. The scam targets needy, vulnerable homeowners who have fallen behind on tax bills or mortgage payments and are desperate for a way to fend off foreclosure.
The con starts when a friendly investor shows up out of the blue offering financial assistance to the person in trouble – often, an elderly and/or desperate homeowner whose name is on the public database of properties nearing foreclosure. In other cases, people in a pinch make the mistake of calling one of the legitimate-sounding outfits advertised on flyers all over inner-city neighborhoods that offer to “help save your home.”
The “help” consists of convincing the indebted person to sign away title to their property and pay rent to the friendly new owner, who in turn agrees to clear up the back bills – often, only a few thousand dollars – and then sell the house back to its original owner a year later.
The trap is sprung when the unwitting homeowner tries to recover the property she signed away. Suddenly, the buyback price has soared, or the building may have already been sold to a new landlord – who hikes the rent and starts eviction procedures.
It’s usually at this point the victim discovers the paperwork he or she signed doesn’t match the transaction the con man described. In some cases, people trustingly sign a stack of papers believing they are saving their home, and instead, literally give it away.
“We have never seen one of these deals that worked,” says Josh Zinner, who runs the Foreclosure Prevention Project of South Brooklyn Legal Services. “The express purpose is to take the title.”
Cases are popping up all over the state. Zinner says he’s seen 75 cases of deed theft in recent months.
“In the last year, it’s exploded as a problem,” he says. “We get calls from all over New York City, and we’ve gotten quite a few calls from Long Island.”
State lawmakers are scrambling to crack down on deed theft. A bill supported by community organizations would allow homeowners to cancel fraudulent transactions and sue the pants off the crooks who try to steal their property.
Until relief comes from Albany, there are a few guidelines people should follow to avoid deed theft. “If you are on the brink of foreclosure, you should immediately seek assistance. This is no time to be ashamed,” says Sarah Ludwig of the nonprofit Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project.
The agency runs a hotline for victims of deed theft at (212) 680-5100. The hotline number for South Brooklyn Legal Services – open to callers anywhere in New York City – is (718) 246-3279.
Above all, homeowners in a financial fix should take the simplest, safest action when someone comes calling with a too-good-to-be-true offer. Hang up the phone.
* * *
Community’s Health Sold Out
One out of every four children in Harlem has asthma. The numbers are nearly as high in the South Bronx and southeastern Queens where other trash-transfer stations are concentrated. And yet, a group of Black and Latino city council members sold out their constituents in early June by voting to kill a plan by Mayor Bloomberg that would finally end the practice of concentrating waste disposal sites in communities of color.
The mayor’s plan, which has been two years in the making, calls for using barges and railroad cars to get rid of the 50,000 tons of garbage the city produces every day. Right now, nearly all the city’s trash is hauled through the streets on diesel trucks, then off to distant landfills, fouling our air with the smog, airborne particles and chemicals that help give New York the highest asthma mortality rate in America.
The health emergency confronting communities of color was almost entirely ignored by the politicians, who framed the garbage vote as a matter of how best to protect the council’s power to bargain and negotiate with Bloomberg. Even that was a lie: The vote was really about bending to the wish of Council Speaker Gifford Miller and a handful of his council allies to keep the city from reopening a marine transfer station on E. 91st St.
A day before the vote, the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association issued a joint letter that all but begged the Council to support the mayor’s plan, which the health groups estimated would cut 5.7 million miles of trash-truck traffic inside the city every year. “Every diesel-polluting truck that we can remove from our clogged streets is a step in the right direction,” the groups wrote, noting that our current system “concentrates the polluting activities in the neighborhoods already demonstrating a higher disease burden.”
A majority of the council members had no use for such idle chatter. What mattered was protecting their power and their popularity among well-heeled East Side donors and voters. It came as no surprise that East Side pols like Miller and Eva Moskowitz voted to kill the mayor’s plan, joined by Eric Gioia, who hails from Queens but has been pondering a run for the congressional seat held by Carolyn Maloney, which includes the East Side.
The real scandal was the vote of members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus who normally posture as champions of poor people. Council members Al Vann, Erik Dilan, Robert Jackson, Margarita Lopez, Miguel Martinez, Philip Reed, Larry Seabrook, Hiram Monserratte and John Liu all cast votes against the mayor’s plan.
Environmental activists saw some of these votes as betrayals, 100% reversals from what pols had promised them. Time will tell what promises, gifts and goodies Miller and his allies offered these pols but a different vote by any five of them would have set the city on the path to cleaner air and less disease.
The tussle continues in the days ahead. Bloomberg is expected to veto the council’s vote, after which Miller will need 33 votes – two-thirds of the council – to kill the mayor’s waste plan. Stay tuned for news of who sells out next time.
By Errol T. Louis