Elderly Brooklyn Resident Nearly Forced Out of Her Brownstone in Gentrifying Neighborhood Before Councilman Steps In

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New York’s Kings County has reversed its decision to seize an elderly woman’s brownstone residence after a Brooklyn city councilman caught the city trying to swipe the 100-plus -year-old property.

City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant, Northern Crown Heights) put pressure on the city to review its decision after he was contacted by retired nurse Marlene Saunders, 74, who was on the brink of losing her paid-off brownstone at 1217 Dean Street in Crown Heights, Kings County Politics reported.

Marlene Saunders
Marlene Saunders, 74, had her brownstone pulled from under her after the city seized it without her knowledge. (Photo by Tsubasa Berg)

Saunders, whose well-kept residence is situated on a rapidly gentrifying block in the historic neighborhood, said the home has been in her family for over 30 years and has no loans or mortgage payments. She wasn’t ready to see it go.

“Home-ownership is one of the most important ways a family is able to build and transfer wealth from one generation to the next,” Cornegy told the paper. “In that light, and with the ever-increasing cost of living in this city, preserving home ownership opportunities is critical in predominantly black and brown communities like ours.”

“As both the elected council member for this district and the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, preserving these opportunities by fighting for homeowners is something I take very seriously,” he added.

The incident unfolded in August when Saunders received a notice in the mail stating that the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation was seizing the home under its Third Party Transfer program, which designates sponsors to restore distressed vacant and occupied single-family homes in an effort to maintain affordable housing options to low-and-middle income households.

Before then, Saunders said her family had never heard of the city’s TFT program and said they’d paid the required property taxes to ensure the home was in good standing. They would soon find out, however, that while the payment was deducted from their personal accounts it wasn’t reflected on their property account with the city for over 120 days.

According to Kings County Politics, there was also a more than $3,000 delinquent water bill for the home, which the city used as reason to transfer ownership of the brownstone from Saunders to the Third Party program. The family subsequently paid the water bill in full on Sept. 12, however.

Saunders’ family contacted the HPD, only to be told the home was already in the transfer process via a court proceeding that Saunders had no knowledge of. That’s when Cornegy and Kings County Politics stepped in to help the elderly woman.

The councilman and Kings County Politics reviewed all documentation and determined “that it appeared the city was trying to take their property for no clear reason.” Days later, they said they received a letter from an HPD spokesman stating, “Upon investigation, it appears the owner made a mistake in applying the necessary payment to the wrong property.”

“It is obvious this was a simple error and so we will reverse the transfer so that the owner can sustain ownership of the property,” it continued.

In the end, Saunders was able to get her property back, but Cornegy said he knows of at least one other case of a resident stuck in the very same situation. He said he suspects there could be many more across the city.

“The issue of deed fraud and deed theft in this city is pervasive and I have spent my time in the Council vehemently advocating for laws and policies to prevent it,” he told Kings County Politics. “We must as a City take seriously the need to protect homeowners from threats to these valuable assets, and not take actions that would only serve to intensify this burden.”

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