In gentrifying Brooklyn, illicit luxury housing is sprouting from community gardens

Development East Environment Media Urbanism

Larceny and deed fraud are on the rise, and those with a mind for leaving confusing trails of paperwork are profiting from illegitimate purchases of land. A classic case of this can be found on Maple Street in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn.

According to a report by The Nation, the area became a tranquil community space in the summer of 2013. Using a lot no bigger than one-eighth of an acre, local residents constructed vegetable patches and seating areas that successfully brought people together to make use of a shared space. The residents’ retreat however, was short-lived.

The owners,  Joseph (Joe) and Kamran (Mike) Makhani, apparently have a history of using illegitimate signatures to gain property and have even been to prison in the past for selling homes they did not own. Their company name, H.P.D., LLC, is quite similar to the government agency, NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). When questioned in the video above, Joe Makhani said, “if the client is stupid, that’s not my problem.”

A woman inspects her vegetable patch (Courtesy Maple Street Community Garden)

A woman inspects her vegetable patch. (Courtesy Maple Street Community Garden)

Cut to 2014 and the Makhanis show up and start destroying the lot that the residents had carefully made. Ignoring calls to stop, they only do so when the police turn up demanding a court order to prove ownership. The Makhanis promptly left after no document was produced.

Patches viewable from above (Courtesy Google)

A bird’s-eye view of the community garden. (Courtesy Google)

So what of the significance of this debacle? The sad truth is that these ordeals are cropping up more and more with cases being becoming increasingly complex with name irregularities making documented selling and purchasing of land harder to find.

“No one is talking about it, but we’re seeing this every day,” said Sonia Alleyne told The Nation on behalf of the Department of Finance. “I don’t think anyone realizes how big this story is.”

The ordeal features all the tell-tale signs of larceny and deed fraud. The initial purchase of land from the nephews of the deceased owners for $5,000 (an incredible and questionably low price); Social Security numbers failing to match up; spelling “mistakes” (McKany rather than Makhani); illegible notary names and the fact that the license number isn’t even present; traits that, in the City of New York Sheriff Joseph Fucito’s eyes, scream fraud. Anyone attempting to investigate ownership/sale history of the land, it seems, is lead down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

NYPD with Mr. Makhani (Courtesy Maple Street Community Garden)

The NYPD with Mr. Makhani. (Courtesy Maple Street Community Garden)

Sheriff Fucito stated that 15 deed-fraud arrests were made in in the last year, and that (as of August 2015) his office was on the trail of over 1,000 cases. Gardens in Bushwick and Crown Heights have likewise found themselves embroiled in similar conflicts. Fucido believes that many fraudulent cases go undetected and that the real number of cases is much higher.

Why the sudden rise in deed fraud? Gentrification may be partly to blame. Brooklyn residential prices are increasing at an alarming rate, and land with debatable ownership is the perfect target for fraudsters.

Experts such as Christie Peale, executive director of the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, say that paperwork is deemed legitimate all too easily.

“The problem is this open process that allows people to just walk in and file false instruments,” said Peale.

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