By Samantha Maldonaldo | November 15, 2023
New York State is moving to combat deed theft.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday signed into law a bill that aims to give prosecutors more latitude to go after fraudulent real estate transactions — and keep homeowners in their homes.
Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein and co-authored by Attorney General Letitia James’ office, the law aims to defend New York homeowners who might be victims of deed theft.
“We are empowering homeowners and law enforcement to fight back against deed theft and keeping families, homes, and communities intact,” Hochul said in a statement.
Deed theft happens when the title to a home is stolen without the homeowner’s approval or knowledge. It can involve forgery, fraud or other tricks. Scammers often target older and nonwhite New Yorkers — especially in gentrifying neighborhoods — and may take advantage of precarious situations, such as the threat of foreclosure.
Victims may lose their homes and see a chief source of generational wealth stripped away, which can perpetuate the racial wealth gap.
Over the last decade, at least 3,500 complaints of deed theft have been filed in New York City, according to the New York City Sheriff’s Office. Most of the complaints originate in Brooklyn and Queens.
“The reforms made through this new law will help protect New Yorkers and better enable them to combat those who try and steal their deeds, their wealth and their American Dream,” said James in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s office said the protections “will serve our victims well as we prosecute the case.”
But the new law does not close all the loopholes that enable a type of real estate speculation that targets the estates of homeowners who die without wills, as THE CITY has previously reported.
What the Law Does and Doesn’t Do
The law allows the Attorney General and district attorneys to pause housing court eviction proceedings for homeowners who are entangled in ownership or title possession disputes — a provision that could prevent homeowners from being forced out of their homes. Prosecutors can flag properties where they believe deed theft may have occurred in order to prevent further transactions.
The law provides a wider basis allowing both district attorneys and the Attorney General to move to void fraudulent documents that dictate interests in the property. The law also creates a legal presumption of fraudulent deed transfer in civil disputes over ownership if an involved party has a previous deed-related fraud conviction.
Plus, the law extends certain provisions of the state Home Equity Theft Prevention Act. The Act allows homeowners whose properties are in foreclosure or on the city tax lien sale list to cancel contracts to sell their homes. Now, so can homeowners that have active utility liens. Financial distress such as liens or foreclosures can draw the attention of investors and scammers.
K. Scott Kohanowski, general counsel at the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, said the provisions of the law are important to crack down on deed theft.
“Deed theft is so prevalent in New York City, and it’s constantly changing, constantly morphing,” Kohanowski told THE CITY. “Law enforcement definitely needs more tools to be able to investigate these crimes, and we need more resources in civil legal services to protect homeowners.”
Still, some lawmakers have expressed interest in going beyond the provisions in the new law to address a particular type of real estate investment scheme brought to light by THE CITY in an extensive investigative series.
In these schemes, which some describe as predatory, investors go after homes of deceased owners in neighborhoods where property values have skyrocketed. These properties legally belong to a patchwork of often far-flung heirs, to whom the investors make below-market-value offers in order to acquire shares of the property. Then the investors go to court either to demand a sale of the home, forcing out family members who still live there, or to evict longtime tenants. The goal is to flip the property for many times what the investors paid for the deeds.
That business model is able to flourish because of a lack of government authority in shepherding assets of deceased homeowners and lack of government oversight that allows deed-related paperwork to make it through the system without much vetting, as THE CITY has reported. And nothing compels the disclosure of a property’s estimated market value in deed sales, leaving unwitting heirs to agree to sell their interests for a fraction of the worth.
This story was published by THE CITY on November 15, 2023