For tens of thousands of Black and Latino families, buying a small family home has been the key to establishing an affordable foothold in New York City. And as gentrification revved up real estate prices in minority neighborhoods, homeownership finally unlocked the opportunity to pass down generational wealth.
But in an increasingly unequal city, many of these life-changing asset transfers are slipping by as homeowners pass away without wills, leaving valuable property untended and ripe for exploitation.
In a wide-ranging investigation, THE CITY exposed how rings of speculators prey on and profit off of these murky situations. They target neighborhoods where property values have skyrocketed. And they pick out homes that legally belong to a patchwork of heirs — some of them elderly, some of them out-of-state — who have no inkling of the market value of the fractional shares they’ve inherited.
After low-balling heirs for their shares, speculators can go to court to demand a forced sale of the house, threatening the family members who still live there. Or investors can seek to acquire 100% of the house through multiple fractional purchases, allowing them to evict longtime tenants and flip the property for many times what they paid.
Nobody quite knows how many families in New York City are vulnerable to such schemes, since city and state agencies have failed to comprehensively track such tactics. But with hundreds of thousands of one-to-three family houses in gentrifying neighborhoods, the opportunities for the seizure of generational wealth are abundant.
Studies show that only about a third of Americans have a will, with Black and Latino people significantly less likely than White people to lock in formal estate planning. That reality means that scores of family homes in non-white neighborhoods are sitting ducks for speculators looking to cash in.
According to interviews with more than 20 current and former law enforcement investigators, legislators, court officials, housing attorneys and real estate professionals, the failure to resolve the problem lies in a profound lack of state capacity.
When a homeowner dies without a will, each borough’s public administrator relies on neighbors, relatives, funeral directors or institutions that had interacted with the deceased to notify them about the property. With that information, the public administrator can collect personal belongings, sell the home and distribute the proceeds to verified heirs and creditors, if no heir is able or willing to manage the estate.
But often, these referrals take months or years, or never happen at all, leaving the door open to speculators to find heirs and push them into sales of deeds for far below their market value. Many of their maneuvers may be legal, depending on what they tell heirs, and in interviews with THE CITY, several speculators argued that their business practices were ethical, and even helpful to disadvantaged heirs.
But understaffed agencies hardly ever vet these deed transfers, allowing even those with the indicia of potential fraud to slip through.
K. Scott Kohanowski, director of the Homeowner Stability Initiative at the City Bar Justice Center, says the predation of homes without wills is “the biggest problem that nobody has heard of.”
“It’s something that flies under the radar. It definitely results in a loss of homeownership, especially within communities of color,” he said. “That’s been a huge issue in New York City because there’s been a large flight of Black residents… just because housing is expensive and it’s so difficult to find.”
How Big Is the Problem?
Real estate speculators’ acquisition of fractional property interests has historically been a phenomenon in the rural south, where Black families owned swaths of farmland for generations, and heirs to the land’s deceased title owners became “tenants-in-common” together.
This shared ownership made such plots vulnerable to real estate speculators, who could acquire fractional shares for little then demand court-ordered sales of Black families’ ancestral land, siphoning off considerable generational wealth in the process.
The prospects for enrichment are immense. Researchers at Auburn University estimate that $41.9 billion worth of heirs’ property exists across 11 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
And in recent years, researchers and reporters have begun to notice the same schemes in the urban north.
THE CITY, for example, found that two small rings of real estate speculators had acquired or attempted to acquire fractional deeds to more than 150 properties across the five boroughs.
But the scale of the overall phenomenon is little understood. City and state agencies do not have a solid grasp of where properties lack wills and where heirs may be vulnerable to such schemes. Likewise, New York courts have failed to uniformly track speculators’ attempts to trigger residential property sales using fractional home interests, a legal gambit known as “partition.”
“It’s hard to know how many homes are held in joint ownership. It is certainly something the city should be concerned about,” said Vicki Been, faculty director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and a former deputy mayor for housing in the de Blasio administration.
Who Takes Charge When a Homeowner Dies Without a Will?
When a homeowner passes away without a will and has no relatives with the wherewithal to administer the estate, the borough public administrator might step in to liquidate the property and distribute the proceeds to verified heirs or creditors.
But they might not. In New York, this process, which determines the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars in estate assets each year, usually occurs when someone has made a referral. But the state has no system to automatically notify public administrators of every instance in which someone with property has passed away.
And when no one makes a referral, valuable properties can sit for months or even years without anyone watching over them — a breakdown that allows speculators to find heirs and attempt to claim title with little oversight.
Take the case of 242-26 Rushmore Avenue, a house in Douglaston, Queens. In 2016, the year the property’s homeowner passed away without a will, the city estimated the house to be worth just over a million dollars.
But for the next seven years, no one called the public administrator to step in and manage this valuable asset. Instead, the city continued to send the deceased homeowner tax bills.
Then in 2020, speculators using an LLC called The Queens Foundation found two supposed heirs to the property and paid them $3,500 and $2,000 each for their alleged fractional inheritances in the home. The speculators had these deed transfers entered into the city’s database, and later that year, the city listed the LLC as the property’s owner on its tax bills, which continued to grow.
Three years later, one of those purported heirs alerted the Queens Public Administrator of concerns she had with the LLC’s deed transfer. As THE CITY previously reported, that alleged heir, a 78-year-old woman in California, claimed she didn’t understand the paperwork she had signed. Likewise, the notary, who put her stamp on the deed transfer, said one of the documents in the deed package submitted to the Department of Finance contained a forged version of her signature.
As a result of the referral, the Queens Public Administrator is now trying to get the speculators’ deeds voided, arguing that she and another heir the LLC paid are not even the property’s true heirs. But the Department of Finance still lists the home’s owner as the Queens Foundation LLC in its latest publicly-available property tax bill.
Javier Ortiz, Brooklyn’s public administrator, said he was open to the idea of an automated system to notify his office when people with property in his borough pass away, but said he could not say if his office would be able to handle the flood of new properties that would come onto his radar.
One former New York City public administrator, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity, estimated that public administrators would have to double their staff size to handle the increased caseload.
“It would be overwhelming,” they said, noting that public administrators are already barely able to handle the cases they have. “There’d have to be a major increase in funding.”
Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY he is skeptical of relying on the borough’s public administrators’ offices, which have historically been roiled by dysfunction and viewed as patronage mills for political party machines.
But Myrie says he is interested in introducing legislation to make sure some government authority shepherds these assets for the benefit of their rightful heirs.
“I don’t think this would present any floodgate issues for the courts, and frankly, even if they did, what is more valuable than saving someone’s home, a home that has been in their family for generations?” said Myrie, who represents parts of Crown Heights and Flatbush, two neighborhoods heavily targeted by fractional deed speculators. “I think it’s certainly worth our investment as a government.”
Why Aren’t Heirs Informed of the Value of Their Inheritance?
When speculators approach distant heirs out of the blue with bargain basement offers, they rely on the fact that the market value of the property is not required to be disclosed at any point in the sale process.
Heirs who agreed to such offers told THE CITY that they were unaware of the value of their holdings, and more or less accepted what speculators told them. According to law enforcement sources, unscrupulous speculators will also sometimes mislead heirs into believing they are on the hook for unpaid property taxes, scaring them into hasty deals.
State Department of Taxation and Finance deed sale documents that are signed by heirs do not provide even an estimated market value for the properties they have partially inherited.
In 2021, for example, an LLC associated with real estate speculator Joseph Ambalo got Carol Pridgen, a 68 year-old Black woman in Virginia, and three of her family members to sell their fractional shares of a house in Jamaica, Queens. The LLC paid Pridgen $30,000 and the other three family members lump sums that added up to $35,000, allowing the speculators to acquire 100% of the property for just $65,000.
The “real property transfer report” that Pridgen signed showed her a figure confusingly labeled as the “total assessed value.” That figure, which is used for property tax calculations, was $22,726. But the same report didn’t notify her of the house’s estimated market value, which was $579,000.
After discussing the offer with the family, Pridgen decided to sign onto the deal. “I thought it was low, but who am I to say? I’m not into real estate,” she told THE CITY.
The year after Ambalo’s LLC paid off Pridgen and her relatives, his company secured a deal to sell the house for $660,000.
Myrie said he would be “really, really interested” in passing a law requiring deed sale packages to include the estimated market value of the properties being sold.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that that doesn’t already exist,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to me be any government interest in keeping that number private, especially from the people who are the rightful heirs of the property.”
Asked about the confusing tax figure included on the form, Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesperson for the state finance department, said his agency will consider updating the “real property transfer report” form it currently uses, but did not provide details on when or how it might do so.
Is Anyone Reviewing the Paperwork?
After heirs have signed deals to sell their fractional home interests, speculators do not have to provide much more paperwork, such as heirs’ drivers licenses or genealogical reports, to back up their filings. Likewise, regulators at the city Department of Finance have too few resources to carefully vet these transfers.
Jake Baumgarten, an attorney who frequently works on surrogate court and real estate issues, said that the city register, which is part of the Department of Finance, should scrutinize deeds more carefully before recording them.
“If the forms look on their face ok, they accept them,” he said. “They don’t even check who the prior owner was.”
Michael Corley, a Brooklyn-based real estate broker and president of Corley Realty Group, said the Department of Finance could institute a 90-day review process on deeds in instances when the deed has been held by one individual for 25 years or more until authorities verify that all parties entered into the agreement legally.
Corley also suggested requiring the title agent, notary, seller and buyer to sign a form agreeing to penalties if there’s fraud in the transactions. On that form, any LLCs would have to disclose who is authorized to act on its behalf.
“Introducing it with a sworn affidavit by the DOF suggests that you have to accept responsibility for what you are submitting because right now, in New York City, they can pass anything and not be held legally liable for filing documents that were done illegally,” Corley said.
But that step would run the risk of slowing down the thousands of transactions recorded every day, something that could provoke resistance from the real estate industry. (The Real Estate Board of New York, a powerful trade group representing property owners and developers, did not respond to inquiries about these ideas.)
In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance said staff with the city register review each deed filing submitted to them for recording.
“Under New York State law, the City Register’s Office and the Office of the Richmond County Clerk are generally required to record all deeds and mortgages that are proper on their face,” said the spokesperson. “Recording a deed is a ministerial function and the City Register does not have authority or resources to conduct investigations before recording a deed. Documents that are determined to be possibly fraudulent are referred to the Sheriff’s Office for further review and investigation.”
Given the agency’s limited efforts, it’s not surprising that troubling deed filings slip through, allowing speculators to cash in.
Earlier this month, THE CITY reported on deed packages associated with a group of speculators that contained seven signatures — supposedly from notaries and an heir in different states across the country — that all looked suspiciously similar.
One notary told THE CITY that one of those signatures was a forgery. And four other notaries said they did not write or recognize those signatures.
But the Department of Finance accepted the filings, submitted between 2019 and 2021, and they are still online today.
One of the suspect signatures was part of a fractional sale to the house in Jamaica, which the speculators eventually flipped for $660,000, about 10 times more than what they paid four heirs. Another was part of a series of transactions that allowed the investors to sell a house in Laurelton for $360,000, after only paying its heirs $85,100.
Rendy Desamours, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, called the targeting of homeowners in these neighborhoods reprehensible.
“The protection of existing homeowners and improving pathways to new homeownership opportunities have long been a priority for Speaker Adams, given the experiences of people across her district and Southeast Queens,” he said in an emailed statement. “The Council has been reviewing ways to facilitate better protection of New Yorkers from these predatory schemes and is open to pursuing all ideas that can help achieve this goal.”
Why Do Speculators With Partial Shares Have So Much Leverage?
Under New York law, any speculator who has acquired a percentage of a family home can go to court and demand a forced sale to collect their cut of the proceeds.
In 2019, the state legislature amended the law governing this type of legal maneuver, called a partition action, giving fractional homeowners living in a property more opportunities to have court-mandated mediation sessions.
But the law does not fundamentally eliminate the leverage that speculators have. In mediation sessions, investors push homeowners to pay them far more than they paid the other purported fractional heirs just for the assurance that they can continue living in the house they’ve called home. If long term residents refuse, the speculators can always force a sale.
Been, of NYU’s Furman Center, suggested one mechanism that could allow people to preserve their family homes and home equity: give joint owners the option of buying out their co-owners’ shares, either for a price set by a court or for the same price that an outside investor has offered. Such a right could deter speculators, or at least make it harder for them to perpetuate their schemes, she said.
“Just slowing the process down so people have to talk to their co-tenants would help on a lot of these — but not all, as families are tricky and there’s lots of dysfunction and estrangement,” Been said.
Such protections might have helped Deborah Thomas and Aston Smith, two longtime Black residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2020, a trio of speculators filed a partition action in court against the couple, threatening the possibility of a court-ordered sale of their brownstone. The couple had lived there for years and previously co-owned it with Smith’s deceased mother. But after her passing in 2015, her will gave 16.66% of the house to Smith’s older brother, who had become estranged from Aston in the wake of her death. The speculators drove to the sibling’s house in North Carolina, and eventually got him to agree to sell his minority interest for just $65,000.
That share gave the speculators power over the retired couple in court. “We were gonna squeeze them and sell [the property] at auction, and then we decided to settle,” recalled Eddie Doran, one of the speculators.
The next year, Thomas and Smith inked an agreement, paying Doran and two fellow speculators $235,000 to keep their family home.
The settlement was more than three times what the investors had paid Smith’s estranged brother.
“This is what they do for a living,” said Thomas. “My husband worked hard all his life and paid for his properties, and someone come in, go down to a court, see who owns what, and just try to go through heirs of people who own property. They don’t buy anything, they steal it.”