Archives reveal origin of Crown Heights eviction drama

964 Park Square (Google Maps, iStock)

UPDATE February 19, 2022, 5:00 p.m.: A new legal filing and old mortgage documents have brought to light an eviction saga in Crown Heights in which a 98-year-old woman lost ownership and then the rental of her 70-year-old family home.

Last week, city marshals evicted Ida Robinson and her family from the stately townhouse at 964 Park Place. The Robinsons had become the first black family in the neighborhood in 1951. But faced with foreclosure in 2015, the matriarch was trapped in a deal that stripped her of the deed to her home, according to her lawyer.

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

Tenants’ advocates, backing the matriarch’s claims of deed theft and unlawful lockout, broke into the house last week to reinstate the family and have been keeping vigil outside ever since.

Police, activists, elected officials and landlord representatives have converged at the address this week, leading to tension and some jostling but so far nothing resembling the violence which shook the neighborhood and the city in 1991.

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

The New York Supreme Court denied his claims, but Robinson still argues that the 2015 deal was presented to him as a refinance, not a sale, and that the deed transfer was improper. A document filed in court Wednesday by a lawyer who specializes in such cases offers new support for this version of events.

The attorney, Adam Birnbaum, wrote that the type of title transfer likely used by the LLC buyer targets owners “who are almost always black and generally elderly.”

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

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

In 2004, Robinson released a home equity margin of Citibank which allowed him 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.

We don’t know why she borrowed against the house. Robinson’s granddaughter, Sherease Torain, at the request of The real deal on mortgages, said she wanted to focus on allegations of deed theft, fraud and dispossession of a black family.

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

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

Between 2004 and 2006, subprime loan originations jumped to about 20 percent an average of 8 percent of all mortgages. Originators and lenders have targeted unsophisticated borrowers — Black owners in particular — with loans that are more expensive than their credit profiles allowed them to.

Documents in Robinson’s case suggest she initially overpaid on the BNC loan, which closed in January 2007, but was not necessarily a victim of unscrupulous lending. Its original interest rate was 7% at a time when the average 30-year mortgage rate was 6.1%. And it was stuck at 7% for three years as national rates fell to 5%.

In 2010, her interest rate became variable and index-linked, which means it likely fell: national rates had fallen to around 4% by the time she received a notice of default on her loan. A financial adviser approached Robinson, uninvited, and then sent a broker to the house. The agent told Torain “they would speak on behalf of my family and we shouldn’t say anything.” Eventually, the broker put Robinson in touch with the LLC that allegedly purchased his home.

“Anyone who was part of this racketeering ring, they were all brought to us,” Torain said.

Torain noted that Crown Heights North, where his family’s home is located, has lost 19,000 black residents over the past decade as the area gentrifies. Reported fix that the neighborhood has seen the most dramatic decline in the number of black residents in the city. But it is impossible to say to what extent this can be attributed to deed theft. Some homeowners have sold their homes for handsome sums and moved to states with lower living costs.

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

In these schemes, Birnbaum wrote, an LLC is often created specifically for the transaction. The LLC characterizes the documents it drafts as a refinance, which Robinson believed to be its agreement. But they actually transfer title to the LLC.

After the LLC obtains ownership, it transfers title to a second or third owner to ensure the process is “difficult or impossible to unfold,” Birnbaum wrote. The LLC that allegedly purchased 964 Park Place from Robinson immediately transferred title to another LLC. Five days later, Menachem Gurevitch, the current owner of Robinson, sells it to himself.

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

Robinson’s granddaughter, Torain, recounted Law360 that his “grandmother never got a dime” from the deal. Court records show Robinson initially “refused to complete the sale,” which led to a lawsuit, settlement and ultimately his transfer of the deed, Law360 reported.

Torain said his grandmother was 92 when the transaction took place.
“Forcing this is elder abuse,” Torain said. “They are white collar criminals and nobody talks about them.”

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

“If anyone during this transaction was able to mislead them, it wasn’t us,” he said.

Gurevitch is no stranger to controversy. His company, Mandy Management, which has assets in Connecticut, Georgia and Florida, faced charges in New Haven Criminal Housing Court for violating the city’s housing code, the New Haven Independent reported.

A spokesperson for the owner said the charges relate to non-operational smoke detectors in the building. “I was a bit shocked – like really, housing criminal court?” he said. “But it’s like that.”

Birnbaum said the transfer Robinson allegedly agreed to should have been canceled from the start. André Soleil, the lawyer who represented her in the transaction, has since removed after allegations that he took over buildings from a Harlem nonprofit 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 avenue to regain ownership of 964 Park Place and the court should stay her eviction so she can “seek full justification for [her] rights.”

The Robinson-Torain household has a date in Housing Court on Thursday and will ask a judge to reconsider whether the eviction was justified.

Torain filed illegal lockout proceedings against Gurevitch last Friday, alleging the landlord changed the locks while she was undergoing surgery, Brooklyn Paper reported. Gurevitch’s team argues the eviction was legal, so changing the locks was allowed. That case is to be heard on Wednesday.

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

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