BY GEORGE JOSEPH AND SAMANTHA MALDONADO
BY GEORGE JOSEPH AND SAMANTHA MALDONADO
Four years ago, Deborah Thomas got a call from an unknown number.
The stranger on the line introduced himself as Eddie Doran and informed her that he was a new co-owner or soon to be co-owner of her home — a two-story brownstone just blocks away from the upscale restaurants and bars that gentrification had brought to Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Malcolm X Boulevard.
Doran’s announcement seemed ridiculous to the 56-year-old Thomas and her husband, Aston Smith, a retired Jamaican-born municipal truck driver. Smith bought the house in 1995, paid taxes on it and co-owned it with Thomas and his mother, who had recently passed away.
But Doran and his co-investors had found Aston Smith’s estranged brother, Raymond Smith, in North Carolina. After their mother’s death, Raymond had inherited half of her real estate holdings, including 16.66% of the Brooklyn brownstone. The investors were urging him to sell them that minority share — a transaction that, through the intricacies of New York state law, would soon threaten Smith and Thomas’ ability to stay in their home.
By law, anyone with any fractional interest in a property can go to court and demand that a judge order its sale, splitting the proportional proceeds among its recognized shareholders.
Three months after scooping up Smith’s brother’s inheritance stake, the investors did just that.
“They want to come and say, ‘We want our share now. So if you don’t have any money, we’re going to take you to court and sue you,’” Thomas said.
In order to avoid litigation that could have forced a sale of the home in which they were living, Thomas and her husband wound up paying Doran and his two co-investors $235,000 to buy the share the Doran operation had picked up from the estranged sibling for $65,000.
In an interview with THE CITY, Doran explained that the looming forced sale of the house triggered the eventual agreement with the couple.
“We were gonna squeeze them and sell [the property] at auction, and then we decided to settle,” he recalled.
Ingenious Business Model
Deborah Thomas and Aston Smith aren’t alone.
An investigation by THE CITY found that a group of investors — Doran, Jonathan Marcus, Vincent Longobardi and Earl Davis — have acquired or attempted to acquire fractional stakes in more than 50 properties, mostly in Brooklyn’s gentrifying historically Black and Latino neighborhoods, in some cases enriching themselves many times more than the heirs they profess to help.
Their ingenious business model is rooted in finding far-flung heirs, leveraging family animosities and pushing or sweet-talking longtime Brooklyn residents into deals that some now say they regret or feel they had no choice but to make. One of the speculators is a convicted burglar. The other three were convicted for possession of stolen property.
Each spoke extensively with THE CITY, portraying themselves as crusaders, uplifting the downtrodden and furthering racial justice. They pointed out that comparisons between their fractional deed payments and what the properties are eventually sold for do not factor in the possible litigation or financial risk involved in each of these deals.
“I’m giving voiceless people options where they didn’t have any. I’m trying to work something out with the other owners in a way that’s positive for everyone,” said Marcus, expressing a view the other three echoed.
“I’m not looking to steal generational wealth from families. But I also didn’t create the situation where you and your other co-owners are at such odds with each other that there are irreconcilable differences,” he continued.
While such real estate transactions have been scrutinized at times by courts and city officials, much of it is in fact legal through a little known but historically fraught legal tenet called “partition,” which speculators have used to extract wealth from generations of Black and Latino families across the country.
In New York City today, the opportunities for profit through such maneuvers are especially ripe in neighborhoods where real estate is rapidly appreciating and longtime homeowners often die without wills, which can leave a scattering of heirs whose fractional interests speculators can pursue for purchase. Even when homeowners do have wills, they may be written in a vague manner, opening the door to fractious family disputes over what the deceased intended.
This vulnerable state of affairs prompted state lawmakers to pass a law in 2019 intended to curtail predatory partition activity. Today, lawmakers are mulling a bill which would bolster New York’s consumer protection rules, which experts say could protect residents approached for their fractional deed interests.
Deed plays are nothing new in Brooklyn. Vincent Longobardi, the son of a Fort Greene grocer, said he first got wind of the business model back in the eighties, when he was a young entrepreneur lapping up knowledge of the real estate business from the “old-timers” at foreclosure auctions. Now an old-timer himself, Longobardi has worked with Marcus and Doran for more than two decades. Longobardi said Doran brought Davis into the fold more recently, though Doran prefers to call him an “associate” rather than a “partner.”
“Vinnie lends and I do the litigation. The other people just find,” said Doran, referring to Marcus and Davis. “So if they find it, there’s a finder fee, or they become partners.”
Dozens of the deed maneuvers involving Doran, Longobardi, Marcus and Davis have resulted in litigation, much of which is still pending. Two recent cases reflect the substantial amounts of money at stake in these deals and the share that the real estate operators can siphon off.
In 2019, Davis bought up the interests of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone after agreeing to pay its five apparent heirs at least $448,500 for each of their 20% stakes in the property, according to city deed records. Three days after securing the last of these interests, allowing him to claim 100% of the property, Davis’ firm sold the shares for $880,000 to another firm — nearly double the amount promised to the heirs in the deed filings.
And at least one of those heirs, Leonard Pressley, alleges Davis only paid him $15,000, a small fraction of what he promised him. Davis claims he paid him much more, but did not provide evidence of this to THE CITY, despite promising to do so. Davis also claimed he only made about $10,000 on the deal, asserting that the title company listed errantly low sale prices in the city deed records.
In 2017, Longobardi and Doran, through an associated company, paid $275,000 to another company for half the ownership of a Crown Heights rowhouse in a historic district. The home had been purchased in 1978 and left to six heirs, three of whom had sold their shares to that separate company for $150,000 total. In 2019, Longobardi and Doran paid $30,000 to a fourth heir for her share of the property, bringing the investors’ ownership to two-thirds of the home. Two sisters, who both live out of state, own the other one-third.
After a court battle, the parties determined the house should be put on the market for an initial $2 million, per a March 2023 settlement. If it sells for that, Longobardi and Doran could make $1.3 million before fees — $995,000 more than they spent on the purchase. (In a statement, the businessmen noted the highest offer received has been $1.1 million, significantly lowering their potential earnings.)
While the real estate operators’ business model is legal, various authorities have scrutinized their transactions over the years, and at least one resident has accused Davis of outright fraud. Davis denied and defeated those fraud claims in court, after his accuser, a former Crown Heights home owner, failed to oppose his motion to dismiss.
In 2017, a Brooklyn Surrogate Court judge voided two deed purchases on a Bedford-Stuyvesant property that Davis, Doran and Longobardi had bought after the county public administrator raised questions about the two heirs they claimed to have found. In a joint statement formulated by Doran, Longobardi and Marcus, the trio said they agreed to voiding the deeds and lost money on the property after the only next of kin heir was identified.
In 2020, the city Department of Finance, which flags deed transactions it deems suspicious, rejected four of Davis’ deed purchases, saying they required “further review.” Davis sued the agency, citing an extended email exchange with a New York City Sheriff’s Office investigator in which Davis declared that while one “may feel my type of transactions, is sinister, none are illegal.” After the department failed to oppose the petition or show up for oral argument, a judge ordered the agency to record the deeds. The Department of Finance declined to comment, citing the litigation.
While conducting research two months ago, Ben Carlos Thypin, CEO of the real estate investment advisory firm Quantierra, stumbled upon several deed purchases involving Davis, Doran, Longobardi and Marcus, some of which he felt were sold at unusually low prices. He alerted the New York Attorney General’s Office and THE CITY about those purchases with a spreadsheet that included 26 properties in Brooklyn and Queens.
“If it had been just one purchase from heirs for a very low price, I would have just dismissed it as some intra-family transfer, but once I saw they’d bought dozens of properties for such low prices and some of those transactions had already sparked litigation, I thought I should make the attorney general’s office aware of the pattern,” said Thypin. “In my opinion, these sellers got ripped off to a degree that, regardless of whether what’s happened is legal, transactions like these reflect poorly on the vast majority of my fellow real estate professionals who would never be party to them and the court and clerk systems for allowing them to happen at all.”
In an email, a spokesperson for New York Attorney General Letitia James said, “We have received the complaint and are reviewing.”
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes several neighborhoods where the businessmen’s deed purchases are concentrated, said he and his colleagues in the legislature need to “crack down on these practices and make clear that New York will fight fiercely for our most vulnerable.”
“Bad actors have systematically used our current system to rob Black and Brown people of generational wealth with little to no consequence and we should not accept this any longer,” said Myrie.
‘I Made a Lot of Money Off of New York’
Eddie Doran grew up in an Irish family in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He said he began focusing on buying up fractional shares over 20 years ago, after reading articles about how the kids of Baby Boomers were primed to get a massive inheritance windfall — and could be willing to sell their shares.
At first, he could only afford to buy homes in heavily Black neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, though sometimes he got questions about why he was there.
“I was the only white motherf****er walking around in 1999 in Bed-Stuy,” Doran said in a phone call, recalling times when a police officer pulled his car over and questioned whether he was there for drugs. “I said, ‘No, I’m looking at properties.’ He said, ‘You’re f***ing stupid.’”
Reflecting on the exchange, Doran observed he wasn’t so stupid: “Look, I made a lot of money off of New York,” he said.
Historically, partitions have hurt Black families that owned farmland in rural areas, a key factor in America’s enormous racial wealth gap. Property ownership is a significant source of familial wealth creation that can be passed down through generations, but use and abuse of partitions, among other factors, have helped feed a stark difference in homeownership rates between white and Black families.
In an interview with THE CITY, Doran offered a play-by-play of how he works his deals. He typically starts by combing through property records, taking a careful look at anything that has not changed hands or been refinanced in a few decades. He’ll search for heirs and pay for genealogy research to flesh out the family tree. Then he moves into action, calling up and rallying family members.
He tells them, “‘If I get involved, I’m going to rip your ass,’” he said. “‘I’m bringing it to court — state, federal, we’re gonna go to Surrogate Court, we’re gonna go through the rounds. You know, let’s settle.’”
In Doran’s estimation, properties owned by Black homeowners tend to be better bets for investment because they’re full of equity.
“A white family, they take the piggy bank [when they] need a vacation, need a car, my boy’s getting married, like that, right? You take the piggy bank, refinance, refinance,” he said. “A Black lady would just pay her bills and live there with the family.”
Earl Davis, Doran’s associate, who is Black and from Crown Heights, argued that their business frequently furthers the cause of racial equity.
“We help more people than the public would obviously realize,” he said in a phone call, noting that many of the heirs he and his partners buy from are low-income people of color, who have a right to equity from family properties but do not have the knowledge or financial means to access it.
“We may call them. They may be in a very bad financial position and that money, you know, [may] help them get an apartment or help them get their car from out the tow yard,” he said. “Or it helped them in some way that they would have never expected because they know nothing about what happened 20 years ago.”
Leonard Pressley, a retired school safety officer in North Carolina, said he is still waiting for all of the help Davis promised him.
In 2019 after the death of Pressley’s father, a homeowner in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Davis approached Pressley, two of his half-brothers and two other heirs for their interests in the brownstone.
Pressley, who previously lived on the third floor above his father, had some nostalgia for the home. He remembered bringing lasagna or collard greens downstairs for them to share, and listening as his dad, a former car plant worker, played his favorite record, Otis Redding’s “The Dock of The Bay.”
But by 2019, two years after his father’s passing, the house felt like a hassle. Pressley had relocated to North Carolina. He didn’t want to deal with tenants and gas bills thousands of miles away. And Davis made the sale easy.
Davis paid for his plane ticket north, Pressley said. When he landed at Newark Airport, a black car was waiting for him and whisked him to an office in Brooklyn, where he met Davis and signed several papers on Nov. 15, 2019.
Pressley told THE CITY he initially thought he was going to receive $300,000, but legal paperwork indicates Davis may have agreed to pay him as much as $325,000. That day, Davis signed a loan and promissory note that stated Davis and two Davis-affiliated companies were supposed to pay Pressley $150,000, according to a lawsuit the retiree later filed. On the same day, Davis also signed a deed sale document transferring Pressley’s inherited 20% of the property to a company listing the same address as another Davis firm for $175,000, city records show.
In the two months before their meeting, the real estate entrepreneur had also secured deed transfers from two of Pressley’s half-brothers and two-other apparent co-heirs, promising them a total of at least $273,500, city deed records show. With Pressley’s signature, Davis now claimed 100% ownership of the house.
Three days later on Nov. 18, unbeknownst to Pressley, Davis’ company sold the brownstone to another company for $880,000, nearly double what he was supposed to pay the home’s heirs, according to Davis’ publicly available deed sale records.
Davis did not show the same speed in paying back Pressley what he owed, according to a lawsuit the North Carolina retiree would later file.
The following year on May 15, 2020, Davis was supposed to give Pressley a $50,000 lump sum payment from the promissory note, according to the suit the retiree later filed. That date came and went, Pressley said, so he called Davis and asked for his money. About seven days after the deadline, Davis finally sent him $15,000, according to the lawsuit.
“He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m going [to] give you this. I’m gonna to send you this now, and then I’ll catch up.’ I started calling him. He stopped taking my phone calls,” Pressley recalled.
After that, Pressley said, Davis never paid him again.
“The only thing that Mr. Davis is doing is trying to line his own pockets,” said Pressley. “If he can take advantage of people who don’t know, be they his race or not his race or whatever, if he can get away with it, then that’s what he’s going to do.”
In a phone call, Davis claimed he only made “probably $10,000” on the brownstone deal, arguing he paid more money to the heirs than was noted on the deed payment records and blaming the title companies for what he claimed were errant sale prices listed in the deed paperwork.
Davis initially acknowledged to THE CITY that he owed Pressley money without going into specific numbers, but in a subsequent phone call, Davis said Pressely was “lying” about how much he had received and claimed he had paid him “about $100,000 if not more.”
“I’m going to provide you with evidence that he received more than $15,000, okay? Way more than $15,000,” Davis said. Davis never provided such evidence.
Pressley said he is still waiting for his money.
In 2021, after Pressley filed a lawsuit, a judge ordered Davis to pay Pressley more than $145,000 for the remainder of the promissory note he owed him plus fees, but the retiree says he has been unable to secure the money from Davis. Late last year, his attorney filed a motion for the court to hold Davis in contempt citing his alleged failure to pay.
“I should have known something was kind of off because he basically was sitting at the table saying, ‘I’m gonna pay you, I’m gonna pay, I’m gonna pay you. I’m gonna pay,’” Pressley recalled. “And it seemed kind of funny at the time that you would sit here and keep on saying this if, in fact, you was gonna pay me.”
K. Scott Kohanowski, director of the Homeowner Stability Initiative of the City Bar Justice Center, an affiliate of the New York City Bar Association, has worked with dozens of attorneys and residents facing partition cases over the last several years. He called the practice “predatory in nature.”
“It’s forcing people out of homes they’ve lived in their entire lives,” Kohanowski said. “It’s sucking the wealth out of these communities, wealth that has been accumulated over generations, and especially in Black communities, because so many African-American families hold their family wealth in homes.”
In 2019, after a NY1 investigation, state lawmakers passed a bill that aimed to offer more protections to heirs caught up in court battles over partitioned real estate. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill, known as the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, into law in December 2019.
Under the law, heirs who live in the property have priority over other parties to purchase the other shareholders’ stakes. The court must look at how any late-arriving partial interest was acquired. And if it’s determined the property should be sold, it would be through a third-party broker appointed by the court.
“The point is to disincentivize equity stripping and to make sure that any wealth that’s held in these family properties is safe within the family,” said Kohanowski.
Since the pandemic paused in-person court operations shortly after the law went into effect and many settlement conferences haven’t yet been completed, it’s too early to tell how well the law is working.
In a statement, State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D – Manhattan), sponsor of the 2019 law, said he’s open to “fine-tuning and improving the law in the near future.”
But legal experts and lawmakers say more could be done.
Christopher Fasano, a senior staff attorney at Mobilization for Justice, a legal services nonprofit, called on the state legislature to pass the Consumer and Small Business Protection Act, a pending bill led by State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D – Queens), which would strengthen New York’s laws against deceptive business practices. If homeowners don’t know their rights, or an investor takes advantage of limited English proficiency, that could be considered unfair or abusive, Fasano said.
“These partition cases are a good example of why New York really desperately needs this law,” he said.
‘I Know I Lost a Lot’
Four years ago, Eddie Doran and Jonathan Marcus showed up at Raymond Smith’s doorstep in Raleigh, North Carolina, and floated a proposal to him about his brother Aston’s home, 500 miles away in Brooklyn.
Their timing was good.
After their mother’s death in 2015, Raymond and his brother Aston had fallen into a bitter family feud. Their mother had chosen Aston to be the executor of her estate, passing over Raymond, her elder son.
“He got mad because he went to the courts, to the probate, and told them he wants to be in charge because he’s older,” Aston Smith recalled. “And he told him, no, they specifically put in the will that nobody must be in charge except for me unless I’m dead. And he got real mad.”
Raymond Smith denied that he was upset about being passed over, and claimed he started to turn against his brother after he failed to give him his rightful share of the proceeds of his mother’s savings bonds.
“I called out him and his wife and said, ‘Both of you [are] two thieves and a liar,’” Raymond Smith said.
Now Marcus and Doran were at his house with new information that would only inflame these tensions and open the way for them to cash in on the property’s equity.
While trawling through deeds one day, Marcus had spotted a deed filing from Aston Smith and Deborah Thomas in 2018. In it, the younger brother and his wife attempted to transfer his deceased mother’s shares of the home to themselves, not mentioning Raymond, who by their mother’s will was entitled to 50% of her real estate holdings, including 16.66% of Aston Smith’s home.
Aston Smith said he had only made his mother a co-owner of the house as a form of security.
“I purchased the house and the only reason why my mother’s name [is] on there [was] in case something happened to me, she would be in charge,” he recalled.
City records show Smith bought the deed to the house from its previous owner in 1995, and put his mother’s name on it four years later. According to Raymond, Aston originally lived there with his ex-wife.
Raymond Smith said he never lived in the house and never put any equity into it. But he claimed his mother did, so when the investors notified him about his brother’s deed transfer, he felt like he was again being cheated.
The negotiations for Raymond’s shares were easy, Marcus remembered.
“He basically said, ‘Come up with an offer. Let’s talk about the offer. I’m happy to sell my interest to you.’ That’s how it happened. That’s almost all the gory details. There’s nothing crazy about the story.”
Raymond said he didn’t weigh the quality of the offer.
“I didn’t think about how good it was or bad it was,” the older brother recalled. “I said, ‘Well, since he tried to rob me, I can get a few dollars from it. Let somebody else take the headache and fight him over it. Whatever they get is fine. If they get anything, it’s fine. If they don’t get anything, that’s their choice.”
That November Raymond Smith officially signed away his shares to Marcus, Doran and Longobardi for $65,000. Three months later, the trio filed a partition action in court, asking a judge to sell the family home.
Soon, Deborah Thomas argued, the businessmen’s behavior verged on harassment.
The speculators put up signs on their property telling tenants to withhold rent — a tactic Doran had used at least one other property — and attempted to change a lock on a door of the house.
Doran denied harassing the couple. He said that going to the tenants was perfectly reasonable, because they were, as he put it, “our tenants, not their tenants,” since he partially owned the property.
Gail Cromer, Smith and Thomas’ attorney, said she did her best to negotiate, but since the family wanted to stay in their home, her options were limited.
“They can’t really just kick them out. But they could force a sale, right?” she recalled. “And so that could mean kicking them out.”
To save the family from endless litigation, Cromer negotiated a settlement with the businessmen to sell their share for $235,000, more than three times what Marcus, Doran and Longobardi had paid Raymond Smith.
Thomas remembers going to the investors’ lawyer’s office on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn where they had to sign the transfer paperwork. Doran, Longobardi and Marcus were there, she recalled, all smiling.
“This is what they do for a living,” said Thomas. “My husband worked hard all his life and paid for his properties, and someone come in, go down to a court, see who owns what, and just try to go through heirs of people who own property. They don’t buy anything, they steal it.”
Raymond Smith said he never heard about how much exactly the investors made off his former shares.
“I know I lost a lot,” said the older brother. “But I just want[ed] to get it over. Let somebody go and fight with Aston, and whatever they can get out of him, let them do it.”
Marcus views the deal as yet another form of he and his partners’ public service.
“I think things ended up in a very fair manner,” he said. “I think everybody — and I’m including Raymond’s brother and his wife — everybody wins.”
“Out of everyone here, they made out like a bandit the most, the most,” Marcus later added, referring to the retired couple. “And they should be sending us flowers for being so nice to them.”