By Stephen Witt
September 28, 2018
Editor’s Note: The following is the fifth of a KCP investigative series by reporters Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt on how New York City is taking paid-off properties from longtime small property owners, including Black and Brown seniors, and giving them to connected non-profit and for-profit developers as gentrification continues to sweep across Brooklyn.
Keith Wofford, the Republican candidate for state Attorney General and opponent to Democratic candidate Letitia James for the seat, yesterday called for a state investigation of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and its Third-Party Transfer (TPT) program.
Wofford’s call comes in light of Kings County Politics continuing investigative series surrounding how two elderly African-Americans in Brooklyn had their properties seized by the city, even though they had millions of dollars in equity in their properties which they have owned for decades. The properties seized were valued at $2.2 million and $1 million, respectively.
HPD utilizes the program in a multiagency approach in shortcutting the normal foreclosure process for properties with housing code violations or tax arrearages. The TPT program was expanded in 2015 through a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and in which a growing number of attorneys say is unconstitutional.
“TPT is intended to guard against slumlords allowing properties to fall into disrepair, to protect the health and welfare of residents,” said Wofford, who went to Harvard Undergrad & Law School. “But it is a massive red flag if this program is ever being used to take a property that is occupied by an owner or their family members — owners do not have an incentive to endanger their own health and safety.
“These actions by HPD, basically stealing properties from Black owners with millions of dollars of savings in their properties, raise the prospect that the program is being abused. It also raises major constitutional questions for the entire TPT program, because the program enables the government to take a homeowner’s property without compensation,” he added.
In addition, Wofford called on HPD to immediately come clean on how they got a court order snatching two owners’ homes while paying nothing. HPD needs to make a clear statement now of how a property owner with millions of dollars of equity wound up on a seizure list. If it cannot stop this from happening, the city should not have the power to shortcut foreclosures in the first place.
In addition to an immediate statement by HPD, Wofford called for the following protective actions:
— A halt to any disposition of any properties seized under TPT until it is determined that no other similar homeowners had that property value snatched from them.
— Preservation of all documents and e-mails by city agencies, including HPD relating to the TPT program pending the conduct of a full investigation of the program.
— A full citywide investigation of the TPT program, including whether any outside entities, which are in line to receive properties, have input on the HPD’s list of foreclosure targets.
Wofford said that he would investigate the TPT program when he is elected Attorney General; but that the Attorney General should start an investigation right now and take actions immediately to stop any further improper foreclosures or sales if the de Blasio Administration does not agree to an immediate freeze.
“A program that allows the de Blasio Administration to seize owners’ property without compensation, then to steer that same property to recipients that de Blasio’s HPD selects, is an invitation to abuse, if it is constitutional at all,” said Wofford. “New Yorkers need to know that this program is being conducted to protect tenants, but in a way respects small property owners’ legal rights — not simply to allow politicians to control real estate in developing areas.”
Wofford said HPD used the “short-form” TPT process to seize the properties without a sale or other price check. HPD simply put the homeowners’ properties on a large list and foreclosed on all of them. These property owners were slated to receive nothing until media attention shed light on the improper seizure, which forced HPD to return one deed and the other is in litigation, he said.
Wofford’s demand comes as James, whose job as Public Advocate is to speak out and demand justice for the city’s residents, has been tepid concerning the issue. She has refused to launch an investigation and instead her office has said they are “fact-finding” and not investigating.