State lawmakers on Thursday introduced new legislation to crack down on deed thieves, scammers who seek to steal properties, often from Black and Latino homeowners. And state Attorney General Letitia James is championing the cause in a bid to keep New Yorkers in their homes and protect generational wealth. 

Two separate bills would bolster law enforcement’s ability to go after the scammers and provide legal mechanisms that could slow down predatory real estate speculation. 

“This legislation will provide real and necessary changes to our civil and criminal laws to stop the perpetrators of these crimes and provide the protections and remedies needed to keep people in their homes,” James said in a statement.

Using fraud, forgery or other tricks, scammers can acquire deeds to homes without the owner’s approval or knowledge, and they especially target gentrifying Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, as THE CITY has previously reported.

Since 2014, New York City Sheriff’s Office received 3,500 deed theft complaints, with 1,500 coming from Brooklyn and another 1,000 coming from Queens. Many of these cases are hard to prosecute, and deed theft itself is not a crime in New York State.

Empowering the AG

One piece of legislation, an Attorney General’s office program bill sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), would make deed theft a crime and ensure the Attorney General’s office has jurisdiction to prosecute it. Currently, the Attorney General needs a referral to prosecute.

Another part of the bill would extend the statute of limitations to allow victims eight years — rather than five — to file a case, with the hope that the longer timeline would give investigators more time to look into claims that sometimes only emerge years after the fact.

The second bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan/Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) and co-authored by James’ office, would enact several measures to defend homeowners who might be victims of deed theft.

One measure is to void “good faith purchaser” protections, which allow buyers to keep their rights to a property regardless of how the seller acquired the property — whether through legal or illegal means. Such protections make it harder for victims who lost their homes through a scam to get their homes back.

Prosecutors could file a legal action on properties involved in suspected deed theft, and that flag would alert banks, insurance companies and potential buyers.

A second measure would pause eviction proceedings in Housing Court for homeowners who can show evidence that they’re caught up in a situation involving possible deed theft. This, the sponsors hope, would prevent a rightful homeowner from being forced out of their home.

“I have been fighting to help hardworking homeowners stay in their homes for many years, and in particular, against the awful form of fraud known as deed theft,” Weinstein said in a statement. “This type of fraud often takes advantage of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, literally ripping their homes away from them.”

Lastly, Kavanagh and Weinstein’s bill would extend the provisions of the Homeowner Equity Theft Prevention Act — which lets homeowners whose properties are in foreclosure or on the city tax lien sale list to cancel contracts to sell their homes — to include homeowners with active utility liens. Often, a lien on a property serves as a beacon to investors and scammers to target houses.

Housing advocates and legal service providers, who have prioritized expanding access to homeownership for New Yorkers of color and keeping them in homes they own, praised the raft of proposed changes.

“Helping families of color stay in their homes — and the communities that they have invested in for years — is a crucial element to reducing the racial wealth gap and stabilizing our communities,” Christie Peale, CEO and executive director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, said in a statement. “We applaud Attorney General James for providing tools that protect our homes and enforce legal action against predators trying to snatch long-term generational wealth from New York families.”

K. Scott Kohanowski, director of the Homeowner Stability Project at the City Bar Justice Center, indicated the legislation could stave off the “terrible disruption and loss” from deed thefts.

“Even when we identify the crime and the perpetrators, it can be incredibly difficult to right the wrong and return the victims to their homes and prior lives,” he said. “This slate of proposals by the Attorney General is an important and necessary step to helping these homeowners.”