The passion of 964 Park Place

Ida and Ephraim Robinson both grew up in the Deep South; Ephraim and his family fled Alabama after his father was lynched. The couple met swing dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, got married and bought the house in Park Place. Ephraim then prospered as a businessman, selling dental supplies to black dentists, while Ida became a dietitian. Helen Robinson and later Sherease Torain followed her into the wellness world. The family’s longevity in their home has increasingly become the exception to the rule: although Crown Heights remains in many ways a prosperous black neighborhood, census data indicates that the neighborhood’s black population has grown from about 89,000 to about 70,000 between 2010 and 2020, one of the biggest such declines in the city. Most of the newcomers who have replaced them are young white people transplanted to the neighborhood like me.

Gentrification is also accompanied by an intense wave of tenant activism. The CHTU (of which, full disclosure, I am a member) is perhaps the most active self-governing tenants’ union in the city and helped to create a more direct action-oriented group, BED, which was created towards the start of the pandemic. The organizations have helped create a nascent but important web of alliances between longtime, often rent-stabilized Black residents facing displacement, and new, mostly non-Black tenants facing skyrocketing rents, often from the same landlords. The Chabad community is largely absent from this alliance. Although most Hasidim are tenants themselves, so far the community has been largely supportive of the area’s many haredi landlords who rent property in the neighborhood to Chabadniks, black residents and newcomers.

According to legal documents filed by the Robinson-Torains this month, their troubles began in 2015, when Ali Torain was contacted by a man who introduced himself as a financial adviser named Richard Wright and offered to help to refinance his family’s home. The Robinson-Torains were two months behind on mortgage payments but planned to catch up, they said. In any event, the house was not exposed to an imminent risk of seizure. Wright promised that because the amount of money the family owed on the house was only a fraction of its value, he could work out a refinance deal in which the monthly payments would remain constant but the money would be freed up for l family use. The family agreed to the deal, and Wright, along with a man who introduced himself as a mortgage broker named Jean Paul, arranged for Ida, Helen, and Ali to be driven to an office in Manhattan. There they were introduced to Yariv Katz, a lawyer who said he would represent them in the transaction. The family members received a set of documents which they were told reflected the refinance deal that had been discussed.

It wasn’t until later, according to the Robinson-Torains, that they learned that the contract they signed was not a refinance deal at all. Instead, it represented the sale of 964 Park Place for $800,000 with an option that they could redeem the property within a year at the inflated price of $1.2 million. Title to the house quickly passed through a series of limited liability companies before ending up in Gurevitch’s possession. The Robinson-Torains say they began to suspect something was wrong after months passed and no refinance payment arrived. Worried, they tried to pull out of the deal. This time, Paul introduced Ali to another attorney, André Soleil, who filed a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court on behalf of Ida Robinson alleging misrepresentation and deed transfer fraud. But the lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that it had been barred by an earlier court ruling – a ruling that the Robinson-Torains say they never even knew about because it was handled by Soleil. It turned out that Soleil had worked with Gurevitch, Katz, Wright and Paul to scam them out of their house, according to the family. There’s good reason to be wary of the characters involved: Katz was later indicted in Queens for fraud related to a deed theft scheme in 2017, while Soleil faced similar allegations of deed fraud and fled the country.

The Robinson-Torains say Gurevitch never sent them a tenancy notice, and city records show he did not register the property with the Department of Housing and Preservation, as landlords are required to do. (Notably, Gurevitch — who didn’t respond to requests for comment — has been criminally charged in multiple cases in New Haven Housing Court for serious maintenance violations of the buildings he owns there. ) Yet, in 2018, Gurevitch began eviction proceedings against the family in Housing Court, alleging they were remaining tenants, meaning they had exceeded the terms of their lease. On February 21, 2020, the court, following the precedent created by the dismissal of the Supreme Court, ruled in his favor. The eviction has been put on hold several times due to the Covid eviction moratorium, but last month, weeks after the last moratorium period expired, a judge ruled the family could be evicted from their home. The order marked one of the first post-moratorium evictions in Crown Heights.

The harrowing experience of the Robinson-Torains is all too common in gentrified neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where handsome brownstones and other properties owned by longtime residents, mostly black families, have become very valuable assets sought after by real estate investors. New York City officials logged about 3,000 deed theft claims between 2014 and 2019, just under half of which came from Brooklyn. Since title deed thieves often use aliases and use shell companies to get mortgages through before victims realize they have been stripped of their title deeds, such cases are incredibly difficult. to solve. And even when deed thieves are ultimately convicted of a crime, it’s sometimes too late to save a property from being flipped over by developers: the Slave Theatre, for example, a legendary black theater and entertainment space. organization in Bed-Stuy, was demolished in 2016 to make way for apartments weeks before a Queens attorney named Frank Racano pleaded guilty to stealing proceeds from the sale of the building, which , according to the owners of the theater, was never allowed to start. A sister institution, the Black Lady Theatre, is currently closed under similar circumstances a few blocks from the Robinson-Torains’ home.

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