Documents shed new light on Crown Heights eviction saga

Lawyer makes case for deed theft; owner took out mortgages during subprime bubble

964 Park Place (Google Maps, iStock)
964 Park Place (Google Maps, iStock)

UPDATED Feb. 19, 2022, 5 p.m.: A new legal filing and old mortgage documents shed light on an eviction saga in Crown Heights in which a 98-year-old woman lost ownership and then tenancy of her family home of 70 years.

Last week, city marshals evicted Ida Robinson and her family from the stately row house at 964 Park Place. The Robinsons had in 1951 become the first Black family on the block. But facing foreclosure in 2015, the matriarch was tricked into a deal that stripped her of her house’s deed, according to her lawyer.

Records show she paid off the home in 1991 but borrowed against it twice during the housing bubble of the 2000s and fell behind on payments. That led to the deal that reduced Robinson to a tenant in her longtime home and to her eviction this month.

Tenant advocates, supporting the matriarch’s claims of deed theft and an illegal lockout, broke back into the house last week to reinstate the family and have kept vigil outside in the days since.

Police, activists, elected officials and representatives of the landlord converged at the address this week, leading to tension and some shoving but as yet, nothing resembling the violence that shattered the neighborhood and the city in 1991.

Records show Robinson had owned her home until 2015 when she sold it to an LLC and became a tenant. Six months later, Robinson allegedly stopped paying rent. Her landlord sued to evict her and months later, Robinson brought her own suit, alleging she had been duped into signing over the deed.

The New York Supreme Court dismissed her claims, but Robinson still contends the 2015 deal was presented to her as a refinancing, not a sale, and that the deed transfer was improper. A document filed in court Wednesday by an attorney specializing in such cases offers fresh support for that version of events.

The lawyer, Adam Birnbaum, wrote that the type of title transfer likely used by the LLC buyer targets homeowners “who are almost always Black and usually elderly.”

The origins of Robinsons’ financial troubles recall a time when unethical and discriminatory lending practices triggered a housing crash and the displacement of Black families.

Robinson and her husband bought 964 Park Place in 1968 after the family had lived there for 17 years. The couple took out a mortgage for $17,000 that Ida Robinson paid off in 1991, a decade after being widowed.

In 2004, Robinson took out a home equity line from Citibank which allowed her to borrow up to $200,000 against the property. In January 2007, she refinanced with a $455,000 mortgage from BNC Mortgage, a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers.

It’s unclear why she borrowed against the home. Robinson’s grandaughter, Sherease Torain, when asked by The Real Deal about the mortgages, said she wanted to focus on the allegations of deed theft, fraud and dispossession of a Black family.

“Anything else is unrelated to our case,” Torain said.

The timing and circumstances of the loans raise the possibility that Robinson was a victim of the subprime lending crisis. According to the Center for Public Integrity, her 2007 lender, BNC, issued at least $47.6 billion in subprime loans from 2005 to August 2007, when it was shut down. BNC was the 11th largest subprime lender of that three-year period.

Between 2004 and 2006, subprime loan originations surged to around 20 percent from an average of 8 percent of all mortgages. Originators and lenders targeted unsophisticated borrowers — Black homeowners in particular — with more burdensome loans than their credit profiles entitled them to.

The documents in Robinson’s case suggest that she initially overpaid on the BNC loan, which closed in January 2007, but was not necessarily a victim of unscrupulous lending. Her initial interest rate was 7 percent at a time when the average rate for 30-year mortgages was 6.1 percent. And she was locked in at 7 percent for three years while national rates fell to 5 percent.

In 2010, her interest rate became variable and tied to an index, meaning it probably went down: National rates had dropped to about 4 percent by the time she was served a notice of default on her loan. A financial adviser approached Robinson, unprompted, and later sent a broker to the home. The agent told Torain “they would speak on my family’s behalf and we shouldn’t say anything.” Eventually, the broker connected Robinson with the LLC that allegedly purchased her home.

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“Everyone that was a part of this racketeering ring, they were all brought to us,” Torain said.

Torain noted that Crown Heights North, where her family’s home is, lost 19,000 Black residents in the past decade as the area gentrified. Patch reported that the neighborhood saw the city’s most dramatic drop in Black residents. But it is impossible to say how much of that can be chalked up to deed theft. Some owners sold their homes for handsome sums and relocated to states with a lower cost of living.

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The document filed in housing court by Birnbaum, a lawyer at Abrams Fensterman referred to Robinson by Attorney General Letitia James, states that the transaction between Robinson and the LLC has many of the elements of a scam used to trick homeowners out of their deeds.

In those schemes, Birnbaum wrote, an LLC is often created specifically for the transaction. The LLC characterizes the documents that it draws up as a refinancing, which Robinson believed her deal was. But they actually transfer the title to the LLC.

Once the LLC has secured ownership, it transfers the title to a second or third owner to ensure the process is “difficult or impossible to unwind,” Birnbaum wrote. The LLC that allegedly bought 964 Park Place from Robinson immediately transferred the title to another LLC. Five days later, Menachem Gurevitch, Robinson’s current landlord, transferred it to himself.

The attorney wrote that Robinson is adamant that she never authorized anyone to sell her home and that she never executed any documents transferring the title.

Robinson’s granddaughter Torain told Law360 that her “grandmother never received a dime” from the deal. Court records show that Robinson initially “refused to consummate the sale,” which resulted in a lawsuit, settlement and eventually, her transer of the deed, Law360 reported.

Torain said her grandmother was 92 years old when the transaction took place.
“To force this on, that’s elder abuse,” Torain said. “These are white-collar criminals and no one’s talking about it.”

A spokesperson for Gurevitch contends that the current landlord was not involved in that initial sale and is therefore not responsible for what happened to the money.

“If someone during that transaction may have misled them, it wasn’t us,” he said.

Gurevitch is no stranger to controversy. His firm, Mandy Management, which owns property in Connecticut, Georgia and Florida, has faced charges in New Haven’s criminal housing court for violating the city’s housing code, the New Haven Independent reported.

A spokesperson for the landlord said the charges concern non-operational smoke detectors in the building. “I was kind of shocked – like really, criminal housing court?” he said. “But that’s what it is.”

Birnbaum said the transfer that Robinson supposedly agreed to should have been void from the get-go. Andre Soleil, the attorney who represented her in the transaction, has since been disbarred after allegations that he took control of a Harlem nonprofit’s buildings and sold one for $1.4 million — funds the group never received, the New York Post reported.

Birnbaum argues that although Robinson lost her case in 2017, she still has a legal path to reclaim ownership of 964 Park Place and the court should stay her eviction so she may “seek a full vindication of [her] rights.”

The Robinson-Torain household has a date in housing court Thursday and will ask a judge to reconsider whether the eviction was warranted.

Torain filed an illegal lockout proceeding against Gurevitch last Friday, alleging that the owner had changed the locks while she was undergoing surgery, Brooklyn Paper reported. Gurevitch’s team contends that the eviction was legal, so changing the locks was permitted. That case is to be heard Wednesday.

This story has been updated with additional comments from Sherease Torain and information on BNC Mortgage.