Additional reporting by Sam Rabiyah and Suhail Bhat
Three years ago on a wintry afternoon, JJ was sitting in bed in her Bushwick apartment when she heard a boom at the door. It sounded like an intruder was trying to kick his way in.
JJ, who is Black, peered through the peephole and saw three white men in suit jackets. She was afraid. They looked like detectives.
“I opened my door, and I’m like, ‘How can I help you?’” recalled the 42 year-old mother of two, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.
That’s when, she said, one of the men introduced himself as “the new owner of the building.”
“I’m like, what? Excuse me?” recalled JJ, who had moved in about seven years earlier and previously paid rent to the relative of a friend living upstairs.
The man told JJ she had a few months to move out. As she stood by bewildered, his two associates were already at work putting new locks on her door.
What JJ didn’t know was that months earlier a group of strangers had indeed acquired title to the house, just a short walk away from the bars and clubs popular with Bushwick’s newcomers. They’d found five far-flung heirs of the property’s deceased owner and convinced them to sell their fractional inheritances for a grand total of $35,500, according to city deed records.
JJ’s home was not their only target. A new investigation by THE CITY has found 119 properties across the five boroughs acquired in part or in whole by companies operated by two brothers, Elliot and Joseph Ambalo, and their business partner Etai Vardi. This crew of speculators nab properties in gentrifying Black and Latino neighborhoods, where many homes are ripe for the taking because their original owners died without wills, leaving a network of dispersed inheritors who may not know the value of their partial shares.
As THE CITY previously reported, similar rings amass partial shares to shake down longtime homeowners for money or to profit from forced home sales. But the Ambalo brothers and Vardi often capitalize on another method: using generically named LLCs like The Queens Foundation and Jackie 42, they find small, multi-family homes with minimal tenant protections, take over the properties by paying heirs low sums, then rush to evict the residents, clearing the path to flip the properties for many times what they paid.
This ring’s maneuvers, which have displaced dozens of longtime city residents, are largely legal. But in some of their transactions, THE CITY found evidence of possible fraud. One notary public based in California believes that her signature was forged on a deed-related affidavit that Vardi also signed. Four other notary publics across the country said they did not sign or recognize their purported signatures that appear in paperwork signed by Vardi or one of the two Ambalo brothers.
The Ambalo brothers and Vardi rebuffed THE CITY’s attempts to interview them at length in person and on the phone. In response to a detailed set of questions sent to them ahead of publication, Vardi shared a brief statement in an email on behalf of the ring.
“The purchase of fractional shares of properties is a long-standing, lawful business practice in the real estate industry,” Vardi wrote. “We have always and will continue to operate within the law and in an ethical manner.”
Of the 119 properties THE CITY identified, 34 have been the subject of eviction or removal petitions filed by the investors’ LLCs, which named 160 residents they wanted out of their newly acquired properties, according to court records. In 19 of these cases, the speculators failed to register their ownership with city authorities, a violation of New York City’s Housing Maintenance Code, before moving to evict tenants.
In 29 of the 119 properties, city deed records show the investors completed a flip of partial home shares or entire properties. In all, they paid heirs and other property-holders nearly $4.8 million then subsequently sold the shares to new buyers for $14.3 million — a $9.5 million difference.
In many cases, the flips and displacement went hand-in-hand.
One of the LLCs paid three heirs $190,000 for a two-family house in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, according to deed records. Just six months later — after filing to remove three residents — the LLC sold it for $630,700.
At a single-family home in Cambria Heights, Queens, another one of investors’ companies agreed to pay $45,000 to six heirs living across the east coast, deed filings show. A few weeks before the LLC inked its final deed purchase, it went to court to kick out five tenants. About eight months later, the LLC sold the “completely newly renovated” house for $775,000.
Heather Domi, a veteran real estate broker with Compass and the founding chairperson of the New York Residential Agent Continuum, a brokers’ trade organization, said such practices prey on unsuspecting heirs.
“We are currently seeing a huge transfer of generational wealth. Sadly many individuals are not prepared and the beneficiaries are not educated on the topic,” Domi said. “There should be education and awareness around these assets to protect these vulnerable individuals.”
At the Bushwick house where JJ once lived, the investors may be on the verge of yet another payday, having successfully evicted JJ and her children this year. Today, the home is in contract, according to a broker, and Zillow estimates its value at nearly $1.2 million.
“They shouldn’t be able to do this to families,” said JJ, who now lives in another part of Brooklyn. “Because you’re putting people out on the street.”
‘Dedication to Transparency and Honesty’
It’s only been about a decade since Elliot Ambalo graduated from high school, dropped out of Touro College, and began trying to flip houses with his younger brother Joseph and Vardi.
Each member of the ring contributes their unique talents to the enterprise.
Elliot identifies properties “in heavy disrepair or vacant,” as he said in a 2022 deposition, and contacts the purported owners. Etai and Joseph conduct genealogical research to determine family ties. Then the partners make an offer, taking into account the size of a family, the level of access they have to the property and possible legal fees they might incur down the line.
“We can buy the property and make some money and move on quickly. Buy it, fix it up, make a couple of bucks and then move on,” Joseph said in a separate 2022 deposition related to the same case.
Deed purchases with the business address associated with the Ambalos’ “Premier Property GRP” only go back to around 2018. But by 2020, on their website, the Ambalo brothers portrayed themselves as seasoned brokers in the Big Apple.
“Both licensed real estate brokers with years of experience in the industry, their entrepreneurial spirits and encouragement from their trusted clients drove them to develop Premier Property GRP,” the website read.
This was not true, as the brothers would admit two years later during the depositions. Neither ever held a broker’s license, at least in New York. And today, their website specifies the brothers are “not real-estate brokers” but “strategic investors.”
But the following claim has remained: “What makes Premier stand out from the competition is our dedication to transparency and honesty.”
The Seizure of a Black Family Home
In many cases, the small, multi-family properties that the Ambalo brothers and Vardi acquired house longtime New Yorkers at below-market rents, even though the units are not rent-stabilized. The residents may have an unregulated lease or merely a handshake agreement with the property’s homeowners, allowing them to live for free or to pay what they can afford. Either way, they have few protections when a new landlord wants them out.
Take the case of Desmond Barnes, who began living in his family’s brick home on a tree-lined street in Jamaica, Queens, 10 years ago.
The house belonged to Viola, his grandmother’s cousin, who had jointly owned it with her late husband. In 2013, with her husband’s passing and her health waning, Viola moved down to Virginia so that Desmond’s mom could take care of her. That year, Desmond, now a 33-year-old boiler mechanic, settled into the house to keep an eye on it.
The home had been in his family for decades. So when Desmond saw problems, he fixed them. He installed a water heater, repaired cracked pipes and covered up sheetrock in the home with tiles.
“I did the front brick steps of that house. I’m not even a mason,” he said. “I put blood and sweat to make sure that house was good.”
In 2018, Viola passed away without a will. After her death, Desmond remained devoted to the house, which had become a refuge for him, even though he had not inherited it.
Before moving in, he had been crashing on couches and struggling to find his footing in the city. With the house there for him, he didn’t need to worry about finding or paying for a place to stay in tough times — especially the exhausting period when he worked shifts at a Manhattan hardware store and took plumbing classes at Bronx Community College before heading back to Queens.
“Just having some place to lay my head helped me focus on putting myself in a position to progress,” he said.
The tradesman even entertained notions of saving up to buy the place.
But unbeknownst to Desmond, the speculators were making moves that would soon take the home out of his family’s hands.
In early 2021, Joseph Ambalo, using an LLC called South Jamaica Holdings 2, paid Viola’s four supposed heirs $65,000 total for their shares of the house, deed records show. These were relatives — living in Maryland, Virginia and upstate New York — whom Desmond barely knew.
“When we got the call, we were really surprised,” said one of them, Joyce Fisher, 51, Viola’s great niece.
Carol Pridgen, Fisher’s aunt, had reservations about the offer, but said after discussions the family decided to accept. The 68-year-old said her niece could’ve used the money, and her nephew, who had been in and out of jail, was happy when he heard he was in for a payday.
“I thought it was low, but who am I to say? I’m not into real estate,” said Pridgen.
Back in New York, soon after the heirs moved forward with the offer, Desmond’s phone rang while he was on a job site in Williamsburg. He walked into an alleyway to take the call. It was a man saying he was the new landlord and that Desmond had to go.
“I was agitated,” Desmond said. “Who are you, to just be calling out of the blue?”
In the absence of any paperwork proving the caller’s claim, he pushed the threat to the back of his mind. But that summer, letters with the same message followed. That November, the South Jamaica Holdings 2 LLC — with Elliot Ambalo named as managing agent — filed court papers to remove Desmond. He moved out that month.
In May 2022, less than a year after Joseph Ambalo had bought out the heirs, he secured a deal to sell the house for $660,000, more than 10 times what his LLC had paid them, according to city deed records.
Fisher and Pridgen were incredulous when THE CITY informed them about the flip.
“He stole our money. He stole it from us. That was a ripoff. That’s a scam,” Pridgen said.
“Wow,” Fisher said. “They made out.”
Fraud and Forgery Allegations
One of those purported heirs, 78-year-old Californian Oda Killian, received a call out of the blue about three years ago from a man whose name sounded like “Etsy.”
Killian said the man told her that she was one of eight heirs to a house in Douglaston, Queens, which had belonged to a cousin once removed who died in 2016 without a will. Killian hadn’t seen her relative since she was a kid and didn’t even know she had passed away.
But Killian said she trusted the stranger, whose matter-of-fact manner made it seem like he was helping her process a predetermined inheritance distribution.
The septuagenarian says she didn’t realize that he was pushing her into a deed sale, the terms of which she could have had some say in. It just seemed like, “This is what’s happening,” she recalled.
That October, the speculators arranged for Darlene Wong, a notary public from a nearby county, to show up at Killian’s house to notarize a batch of paperwork required to seal the deal, which she did.
But Wong told THE CITY that she did not sign one of the deed package documents that was filed with New York City’s Department of Finance over a week later, and which was also signed by Vardi.
Wong writes out her last name in cursive, but the signature on the document Wong purportedly signed and notarized is a looping scribble that looks like a single “M.”
“Absolutely not,” said Wong, when asked if she could have signed the document that way. “That’s not my signature at all.”
Poring over deed transaction records involving LLCs associated with the speculators, THE CITY identified six other signatures from five other notaries and one purported heir that look similar to the M-shaped one Wong says is forged. When presented with the documents, four of those notaries confirmed to THE CITY that they either did not write or recognize the signature as theirs.
One of those suspect signatures was part of a chain of transactions that deed records show led to the sale of a Laurelton, Queens, house for $360,000, just a few months after the investors’ LLC paid the last of five heirs $85,100.
“I do not recall making that mark,” said that notary, who is based in Rhode Island and spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity. That document was also signed by Elliot Ambalo.
Vardi did not respond to detailed questions from THE CITY about Wong’s allegations. But in a brief phone call, Elliot Ambalo referred questions about the signature that Wong said was forged to the title company on the transactions.
“I don’t record the documents,” Ambalo said.
In a text message, however, Daniel Ifraimov, the CEO of the title company, EastCor Land Services, claimed that the “title co never signs anything,” and affirmed in a phone call that the speculators would have also had access to this kind of deed paperwork, which they signed.
The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James did not comment on the suspect signatures, but shortly after receiving a request for comment about some of them, an assistant attorney general from the office contacted George Grasso, Killian’s lawyer.
“I’d be happy to work with law enforcement on any level, whether it’s local, state or federal,” Grasso said in a phone call.
And at least one other authority is scrutinizing the speculators. Earlier this year in an effort to preempt a flip of Killian’s relative’s property, Grasso contacted the Queens County Public Administrator to flag his client’s concerns. In April, the public administrator filed a petition asking a judge to vacate Killian’s deed transfer and accused the investors’ LLC of fraud. That request is still pending.
‘They Don’t Target Them. They Target Us.’
Two years ago, after a stranger called Desmond Barnes and told him he had to leave the family home, the boiler mechanic packed up his tools and put them in a storage unit. One day he feared he’d drive home and find new locks on the doors.
That November, Desmond moved to a nearby apartment, but he continued to care for the house. When the snow fell, the tradesman would stop by to shovel the sidewalk, standing in the cold by the front steps he’d bricked years earlier.
But in the eyes of the law, Desmond had no right to the property. Its official heirs had sold the family home for a fraction of its worth.
After Desmond moved out, a housing court judge ordered him to turn over his keys.
So one day in January after work, the boiler mechanic waited outside the house and watched as a young white man pulled up in a BMW.
Desmond and the man walked in together. At first, the stranger was chatty, asking which belongings he might want to take with him. A decades-old Dewalt table saw, which Desmond valued as a craftsman, was in the basement in pristine condition. Viola’s closets were still full of vintage skirts and tops.
“He’s like, ‘Oh do you want to take that? You know, that might be worth money,’” he recalled the man saying.
The questions infuriated Desmond, whose demeanor soon deterred the stranger from more small talk.
“You do realize I had to break my neck to find the apartment and move everything out? You think I got time to f*** around?” he recalled thinking. “They’re just aloof people to the real world.”
Desmond handed the man his keys, and turned his back on Viola’s house.
The following year, with his father struggling with his health and the family home gone, Desmond decided to move down to Virginia.
“I love New York to death,” he said. “New York is home, and it always will be. But as a person trying to do certain things, that just ain’t the place.”
Desmond grew up in New York. He could handle the hustle.
“But what these guys are doing, this ain’t regular panhandling on the street, regular New York, you know, you gotta find your wallet,” he said. “Nah, this is a tactical, coordinated thing that they are doing.”
“And why would they specifically target minority communities? They don’t do that in Bensonhurst. They don’t do that in parts of Bay Ridge.” Desmond continued. “You think them people don’t got any family issues or credit issues? Yeah, they go through all that too. But they don’t target them. They target us.”