Power

The million-dollar brownstone that no one owned

On a quiet street in Brooklyn, a real-estate imbroglio proved nearly impossible to solve.
Power

The million-dollar brownstone that no one owned

On a quiet street in Brooklyn, a real-estate imbroglio proved nearly impossible to solve.

On December 12, 2013, a three-story brick townhouse in a swank part of Brooklyn sold for $20,000. A mysterious organization called AOTA LLC bought it from a guy named Barrington Adrian, who had bought it 10 years before from Rosa Perez, a Puerto Rican lady, who had lived there for 30 years with her son Eddie, and still lived there when I moved in in 2011.

How could a house in a desirable neighborhood sell for less than the price of a parking space underneath a condo on the same block?

It took me years to find out, and years to tell this story. It’s a hard story to tell. One that’s both personal, financial, and also historical, since it’s the story of a house that remains all but unsalable today. No one person will buy it. And no one person will buy it because the house has what’s called a “clouded history.” And the clouded history is the result of the mortgage crisis that happened 10 years ago, which nearly brought about a second Great Depression and did bring about 8 million Americans losing their homes.

1

Please know that this story gets confusing in places. But stay with me, because as we move along, things do become more clear and organized. Also: I’ve changed some people’s names, though not that of Barrington Adrian, who did not respond to calls or Facebook or LinkedIn queries for comment on this article, and according to public records lives in a co-op on the Lower East Side, and still engages in the kind of real estate deals described here. From here on out, if I’m using someone’s real name, I’ll put “(real name)” after their name.

Part of my research for this article was watching The Big Short about a dozen times. The 2015 film, you’ll remember, is about the group of traders who caught onto the subprime mortgage scandal and bought insurance bonds that would rocket in value if/when the housing market collapsed. I’d suggest seeing it, or at the very least looking it up on Wikipedia (or even reading the 2010 bestseller of the same name by Michael Lewis). I’d also suggest referring to the glossary of Important Real Estate Words (IREW). These words — like “mortgage” (a home loan) — are used again and again and again in the piece, and are important, but not explained in the main text. So they’re explained in the graphic directly below.

GLOSSARY OF IMPORTANT REAL ESTATE WORDS

Here is a short list of important real estate you’ve heard, read, or said, probably. They are words so often used in this article that it’s easy to forget what they really mean. And what they really mean, in terms of real-estate law, is important enough to the story that I’m explaining them here in this separate box. Lawyers use these words in a way others do not. I’m not a lawyer, but as a result of talking to so many of them and going to court so many times, I know more than average about mortgages, deeds, titles, and notes. I also looked them all up. So what follows is a listing of these words, what they legally mean, and a little about where they came from.

None of these are real legal definitions. You wouldn’t understand them. Trust me. One lawyer defined title as, “A title deed establishes title to the property —” and so on. So these definitions are a combination of what I’ve looked up and my own conjecture.

Also: two words not on this list are house and property. In the story they’re used interchangeably, which is not okay legally, since they’re two different words with (obviously) two different definitions. Property basically means piece of land and house basically means the dwelling built on that piece of land. Property comes from proprius, Latin for “one’s own.” It can also mean right to possess or, in science, a common quality. House has over a dozen meanings and is the root of more than 100 words/terms, like House Arrest or Fish House. It can mean bar, brothel, or theatre, but here it just means a house, from the word haus, German for shelter.

MORTGAGE

A mortgage is a home loan wherein the house is the collateral — the thing the bank/lender will take if you don’t pay back the borrowed money. As a verb, it is the action of “pledging property to a creditor as security for the payment of debt.” It also means risk. The example my dictionary gave was “to mortgage one’s future,” which felt perfect.

Mortgage is a conjunction of two other words: “mort” (dead) and “gage,” to pledge or pawn.

NOTE

A note is a written statement of debt. In real estate terms, it means something specific in that statement, which a lawyer might point out in court: “Your honor, the stipulation notes that the tenant had no prior lease”. It can also mean any one document in the paper trail of a house’s history, or title. As a result, a house’s title is made of notes (one of which is the deed).

Note comes from nota, Latin for mark, sign, character, or letter. Also see notus, to know.

DEED

In real estate, a deed is a piece of paper that’s special and important because whoever has this piece of paper owns the property. Owns it legally. It’s a legal document, the document itself stating that whoever has it, literally holds it, therefore owns the property. This is why a deed is usually in a safe or safety deposit box — so it won’t get into the wrong hands. This magic sword/Pick of Destiny thinking is more than 300 years old, and like free press and due process was very important to first-generation Americans, whose king had prohibited anyone but himself from owning land.

This is why “to deed” a property means to transfer its ownership by using such a document. This fits with deed’s other listings in the dictionary, such as a synonym for task.

Deed comes from ded, Old English for an act, a thing done. Ded comes from do. Do has vague Indo-European roots and this is of course incredibly old (like 10,000+ years), and is preceded by the onamonapiac and caveman-sounding word dhe, literally “to set down.”

TITLE

The title is more-abstract version of the deed. It means a right to ownership, and in real estate, right to ownership of a property. It also means the tangible, textual evidence of that right to that ownership. So the deed is part of the title, but the title is not part of the deed. (I know, I know.)

Lawyers, notaries, and private investigators sometimes will sometimes refer to the Chain of Title, or COT. This is the collection of every filing on a single property. This is the paper trail. The house’s legal history. Mortgages, notes, deeds, and titles are all part of the COT. They all fit under this biggest umbrella. This is why “fixers” get paid to mysteriously find documents missing from the COT. It’s the most important thing.

From the Latin titlus (sign or label), title has a lot of meanings. It can mean the name of something. Or it can mean a rank, epitaph, profession, and also a claim or right. In film or on TV or Netflix, the title is both the name of what you’re watching and those words on the screen crediting the work you’re about to watch. It’s the same thing with a book, or a really long article no one’s going to read.

The Big Short tells a good time-and-place story (pre-recession Wall Street, 2005ish) and explains how single mortgages were organized into larger and larger units of value, even though a lot of the mortgages weren’t worth anything. One way the movie did this was by having Steve Carrell’s character and his hedge-fund guys meet with the various greasy people who were making money off the whole thing: Brokers writing mortgages to immigrants or strippers they knew couldn’t pay back the debt, for instance, and then the people who bought and bundled thousands of these mortgages.

There’s also people who bought these bundles and subdivided them into “tranches,” then bundled the tranches into “Collateralized Debt Obligations,” or CDOs. And there’s the people who bought, bundled, and managed these CDOs, and then the people selling insurance units on these CDOs, which themselves can be bundled into even larger units of value.

The movie ends in 2008, when the bubble burst and 8 million Americans lost their homes.

But it doesn’t explain what happened to all the money that was owed. To all the single mortgages that were bought, bundled, divided, sold, rebought, rebundled, redivided, resold, etc. So, if different companies own different amounts of one mortgage, and then these companies shut down, what then? What happens to that one mortgage?

That stuff isn’t in the movie, but it is part of this story. And this story, my story, is a preposterous tale. One that concluded, somewhat, in Idaho Falls, Idaho and in the Kings County Supreme Court, with a penless lawyer who suggested I write an article about the Christian genocide in Iraq. It’s also the story of the house where I lived, its history, and the documents both real and (likely) fabricated that reflect this history. The documented history of a house is legally called a “title” (or “chain of title;” see IREW glossary) and if things like signatures or full pages are missing in the paperwork, then that title is “clouded.” One lawyer described the title to the house where I live as “extraordinarily clouded.”

I’ll explain this all as best I can. Interjecting throughout will be my Lawyer Friend (LF, from here on out). LF, who asked to remain anonymous in this article, is an attorney at a nonprofit, with experience defending both residential foreclosures and eviction cases in New York City. LF did not represent me in court but advised me throughout the proceedings and read drafts of this article.

LF sounds like a lawyer. When I was first pitching this story and still lived in the house, LF said, “It might be helpful to talk about what got you suspicious from the outset and how that led you to question your prior willful blindness to things like paying rent in cash, no lease, etc.”

This is true. When I moved in in the fall of 2011, Rosa’s son Eddie asked if I could pay rent in cash. He also said “the lawyer” was writing up the lease, that it would be done soon. It never was, but no matter because the place was spacious and nice — a full top-floor apartment, with hardwood floors and tall windows, for below-market rent. I had roof access, a stone stoop, and a hallway with a banister I could lock my bike to. Down the hallway was an extra closet where I could store stuff, since no one else came up to the third floor.

All this, of course, was the anticipated trade-off. I wasn’t their first tenant. Others had come and gone before me with the same arrangement.

And I trusted them, because we were neighbors. For years I’d lived a few doors down in a two-family home divided into seven apartments, so we already knew each other. One night I was coming home from a bike ride and our 91-year-old neighbor Elsie was dragging out her trash pails. She said Rosa’s upstairs apartment was empty now, and to knock on her window and ask to see it. It was 10 p.m. and I had no shirt on, so I said I’d do it tomorrow.

“Do it now,” she said, and went inside.

I put a shirt on and knocked on the window since the doorbell didn’t work. Their pitbull started barking, and eventually Rosa peeked through the blinds. I explained Elsie’s idea, and then she came to the door with Eddie, who took me upstairs for a tour.

“We’ve been here 30 years,” he said, standing in the empty kitchen. He quoted a price ($1,400) I said was too high. “I’ll talk to Mom,” he said, and an hour later called with a counteroffer that was $50 more than my illegal studio. The next day I brought him an envelope with two months’ rent and started moving my stuff into what would be my home for the next five years.

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Things were fine in Gowanus. Our block was especially colorful, and held out longer than most against the development that eventually steamrolled 4th then 3rd Avenues. This was pre-Morbid Anatomy Museum and Whole Foods, which opened after a two-year delay due to building on a superfund site, the Gowanus Canal.

Because of zoning restrictions, our block was mostly three-story townhouses. Across the street was a warehouse for International Furniture Co., a Chinese company with an office in that weird subterranean mall under the Manhattan Bridge. Their building and truck lot still take up half the block and are very old-world Chinatown, with guard dogs and a line of chain-smoking guys who dump their take-out in the gutter. The building once belonged to Citroën, the French car company that merged with Peugeot. The Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee episode with French comic Gad Elmaleh features a Citroën, and when I moved in the old factory was still the same lovely gray color as the 1950 2CV they drive around town in.

Things were fine until one day in 2014, when Eddie said we needed to talk. Whenever there were any issues about anything, Eddie would text me to come downstairs to the living room, where he would talk while Rosa stared at the floor. That night he said they were moving. The house was for sale and they’d already found a buyer, but nothing would happen for another six months. He would keep me posted.

How could a house in a desirable neighborhood sell for less than the price of a parking space underneath a condo on the same block?

This is when I first called LF, who said to check out the Automated City Register Information System, or ACRIS, which is NYC’s archive of public real-estate records. Just type in the block and lot number and there’s a historical listing of not only who bought and sold the property, but which banks loaned buyers money.

I was driving upstate to visit my grandmother when LF called to get the basic details about my situation, like how I paid rent, did I have a lease, etc. LF emailed me that night.

“I am very curious about what AOTA LLC is,” LF wrote. “Whatever it is, it appears to be the actual owner of the property.”

LF sent the ACRIS link, and that’s when I saw the sale of $20,000 in 2011, when AOTA LLC bought the house from Barrington Adrian. This was just after I moved in. The previous sale was listed a few lines down, when Adrian bought the house from Rosa for about $700,000 in 2004. When the loan was paid back two years later, Adrian took out a mortgage on the house for about $800,000. A year later he took out another for about $200,000, then consolidated that mortgage with the pre-existing one into a single mortgage, for about $1 million.

(According to ACRIS, the loans were for $689,000 in 2004, $825,000 in 2006, and $171,782 in 2007. The consolidated mortgage was for $990,000. Listing these exact prices was LF’s idea.)

This was all news to me. I didn’t know who Barrington Adrian was. Or about the recent sale that happened when I was living in the house. Rosa and Eddie hadn’t mentioned not owning it. Adrian had seemingly never moved in, or moved anyone else in, and Rosa and Eddie definitely never moved out.

I didn’t know what was going on. Were Rosa and Eddie paying AOTA? Should I be? Could I ask for my years of rent back, since Rosa and Eddie weren’t the owners of the house? Could AOTA evict me and/or demand back rent? And WTF was AOTA?

I found out a lot more after meeting LF at Kings County Superior Court. There, in the basement, are Brooklyn’s court records, catalogued on one of those long, high, chairless tables of old yellow PCs. The basement archives are like ACRIS on steroids: ACRIS has court records, but typically doesn’t have the filings (the documents, the actual pieces of paper) in court cases. In the court basement are all the case filings in all the housing court cases, and they usually have people’s names on them. So only here can you follow the true paper trail. It’s also a big, open, bustling place, so it took a while to find LF. When I finally did, across the busy room, LF was standing at a PC, laughing.

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Remember that scene in The Big Short when the stripper tells Steve Carrell that she owns five houses and a condo? This is a turning point in the movie, because it’s when Carrell finally realizes that almost anyone can get a mortgage for almost any amount. That the housing market has entered the frantic period just before collapse. That there’s a bubble. This is in fact the opening line of the next scene, when Carrell’s at the airport, calling his numbers guy, the guy with the shaved head and open shirts.

“Hey. There’s a bubble,” says Carrell.

“How do you know?” says the guy.

“Trust me. Call Vennet. Order 50 million swaps.”

(Vennet is played by Ryan Gosling in an Oscar-robbed performance as an honest Wall Street greaseball.)

“It’s time to call bullshit,” Carrell says at the end of the scene.

“On what?”

“Every fuck’en thing.”

This was early 2007. It was the year the housing wave started to break and when Adrian borrowed the second part of the $1 million from a mysterious lender in Wisconsin who probably shouldn’t have loaned him a lighter, let alone $200,000.

How Adrian got the money has to do with when he got it. He filed the second mortgage paperwork in the summer of 2007, when lending was at its most decontrolled. (This American Life did a great piece on this the following year.) By then the scandal had become lawless, surreal. Preposterous. It’s when brokerage firms were writing No Income No Asset loans for $500,000. When hedge funds were buying mortgages deemed “toxic waste” (a home loan to someone with bad credit), and then bundling and getting them reassigned with a value of AAA, the same as cash or the bonds in Fort Knox.

I didn’t know what was going on. Were Rosa and Eddie paying AOTA? Should I be? Could I ask for my years of rent back, since Rosa and Eddie weren’t the owners of the house? Could AOTA evict me and/or demand back rent? And WTF was AOTA?

This was the time when places like Goldman Sachs were not just creating billion-dollar collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bundles, but also “Synthetic” CDOs (SCDOs), bundles of the aforementioned insurance bonds taken out on those bundles. When giant CDOs were being created out of other CDOs, and a firm in Ohio issued 23 mortgages to people who were not alive. This time.

A scene in The Big Short well-illustrates this time, the scene when Carrell is in Vegas and has dinner with a CDO manager. I’m pretty sure the guy’s supposed to look like the devil. The guy beams in a way that quickly feels evil, then beams like that through the whole dinner. Grinning and slurping and twitching, the nameless man looks possessed, Lynchian, blackly lit from beneath as he smilingly tells Carrell all about the made-up market for insuring made-up SCDOs — and how it’s bigger, much bigger, than the housing market itself.

“How much?” asks Carrell, holding his head.

“About 20 times,” says the devil man. “It’s awesome.”

Thus, the second mortgage issued on the house where I lived was likely one of the last in the whole crisis. That summer (2007) was the beginning of the end. Soon after came panic, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929, AKA “The Great Crash”). American Home Mortgage Investment filed for bankruptcy, and then Bear Stearns liquidated two of its subprime mortgage-backed hedge funds. These great financial implosions, seemingly impossible until they happened, happened almost two weeks apart. So it was like Black Tuesday, except that it lasted for two weeks.

This was also when Adrian compounded the two loans on the house for $1 million, so that his monthly mortgage payments were $6,187.50. According to court filings, foreclosure soon followed, suggesting he wasn’t making payments. So he had no real mortgage payments (since he wasn’t making them), but he did have a house, and a million dollars.

“He used the house like an ATM,” said LF. “You also might want to theorize here on how there may have been some collusion between Adrian, Rosa, and Eddie to bleed the house dry.”

Right. Rosa and Eddie were probably in on the deal. How could they not have been? She had sold the house to Adrian, but as the new owner he let her and Eddie stay there. It’s also probably why they wouldn’t give me a lease and why they didn’t want me to take our neighbors to court when their roof was leaking into my apartment. A judge would want the homeowners in court. I’d always thought Rosa and Eddie were the owners, and they wanted to keep it that way.

(Like Adrian, Rosa and Eddie did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Because Adrian probably didn’t make any mortgage payments, the bank began to foreclose on the house, to take it back, since Adrian had put it up as collateral to get the loan. But this was 2008 and foreclosures take a long time, especially in New York City (LF: “longest in the country”). As a result, it can be a good deal for people living there if they’re not being sued personally, in this case Rosa, since she sold the house to Adrian and he obviously knew she and Eddie were there. And yet, in the courthouse basement that morning, we found two years of eviction notices naming Rosa and Eddie; had they been squatters, they’d be “John Does 1 to 5” in the notices (The “1 to 5” is meant to evict any and everyone else living there.)

In this case, it took two years before the bank served them final eviction notices.

And then something strange happened. On September 10, 2010, the notice for foreclosure was... withdrawn. The bank changed its mind. After three very expensive years in court (housing lawyers can cost $600 an hour), the bank no longer wanted the house. Nevermind. You keep it. And our million dollars, apparently. Five months later, the bank canceled the lis pendens, the red-flag document filed in housing court that alerts prospective buyers about the property being in litigation. Now the property was no longer in litigation, which made it much easier to sell.

4

That morning at Kings County Supreme Court, as LF and I paged through court filings on the house where I lived, proverbial cracks began to appear.

Things are going to get technical now. Legally this is all so obscure that only a housing lawyer can truly understand it. It’s complicated enough that I have to generalize a few things. LF will explain the lawyerly stuff and I’ll explain what we found on the paper trail. This is where the IREW glossary should come in most handy.

Okay.

First, the mortgage. On the mortgage, both the date and the location when the mortgage was recorded… are blank. (Blanks on a legal housing document mean the title is effectively clouded, and remember, a clouded title makes selling or borrowing on the property very hard.)

Next, the note. The note and mortgage are essential to one another. The two documents are never supposed to be physically separated and, not surprisingly, in this case they were physically separated.

Finally, the lis pendens, the red-flagging of a property. When a lis pendens is canceled, it is always noted that it is “discontinued without prejudice.” This means the lawyers can take it up in court where they left off, saving a lot of time and money. That is not noted here. Furthermore, the September 10, 2010 withdrawal of the lis pendens happened after the date when everyone goes to court and a judge decides what to do next. This is rare, and suggests that Adrian never even showed up.

The lender on the mortgage was WMC Mortgage Corp. The note was assigned to Chase Home Finance, which reassigned it to Mortgage, It., a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank. All three of these places were later charged with robosigning (approving a mortgage without knowing the specifics and in some documented cases not even reading it), but Deutsche was a main instigator, and eventually had to pay $1.9 billion for its role in the scandal.

(When Gosling holds up a check at the end of The Big Short for $47 million and says to the camera, “I never said I was a good guy,” that check is from Deutsche.)

Then the big one. Representing the bank in the case was Steven J. Baum, a notorious lawyer whose firm ran what LF calls “a mill” that handled 40 percent of New York state’s foreclosures during the mortgage crisis. Baum was the subject of a New York Times investigation that included photos from his firm’s Halloween party, when lawyers dressed up as the homeless people they’d help evict. State and federal investigations followed and Baum shut down in 2011.

If different companies own different amounts of one mortgage, and then these companies shut down, what then? What happens to that one mortgage?

Seeing Baum’s name on a real-estate lawsuit is kind of like finding a bloody knife in a murder suspect’s trunk: It is the reddest of flags and in LF’s words, “Always raises questions.”

Based on the filings we reviewed that morning in court, here’s what probably happened: As Baum entered into the final stages of foreclosure, the firm likely realized that it was being watched by the feds, and that the documentary evidence (note, mortgage, etc.) was what LF calls “woefully deficient.” For a bank to foreclose, it must hold the mortgage and the note. There’s no indication that it did, and it’s probably why they dropped the case and why Rosa and Eddie weren’t evicted.

So Adrian avoided foreclosure, and got to keep both the million dollars and the house. But the million dollars was borrowed against the house, so the house had a lien of $1 million, plus a title with missing and incomplete documents, AKA “an extraordinarily clouded title.”

An extraordinarily clouded title makes a house extraordinarily hard to sell. That’s probably why the one I lived in sold for $20,000, despite being valued at more than $2 million. The seller, remember, was Adrian. The buyer was AOTA LLC, a “company” created by someone named Reginal Beauvas (real name and a very mysterious man with a blank LinkedIn profile who also did not respond to requests for comment). Creating an LLC was smart (“crafty,” LF said) because it protected Beauvas from personal liability, in the case of foreclosure.

However, there was still a $1 million lien on the property. A debt. A lien attaches to the property, regardless of the owner. There’s debt in the dirt. The lien runs with the land. Whoever holds the lien could show up at any time, claiming an interest in the property and demanding the collateral that is referred to in the mortgage. And of course the collateral is the house.

But what happens when a company or companies that own part (or all) of a mortgage shut down? What happens to that one mortgage? What happened to the mortgage on the house where I lived? How does one satisfy a lien if one doesn’t know who to pay?

I learned all this in 2015, when LF said the only thing to do was to satisfy the mortgage. That is, to find the owner or owners of the mortgage and pay them. But how? How do I pay a debt if I don’t know who to pay? Because what happens when a company or companies that own all (or part[s]) of that mortgage shut down? Who owns the debt on this house? “That may be unknowable,” LF said.

5

Something strange happened on May 5, 2016.

The mortgage to the house where I lived was satisfied in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

How was a mortgage for a New York property cleared of a debt in a town 2,000 miles away? Unsurprisingly, it happened with more mysterious people hiring more mysterious companies to do more mysterious things. And as usual they left a paper trail, albeit an unusual one.

[PDFs of all the documents cited in this section were found on ACRIS. They remain viewable on both ACRIS and in Brooklyn Supreme Court’s basement.]

This one starts with the satisfaction of mortgage. This document lists two parties.

The first is Adrian, who you’ll remember borrowed $1 million on the house, didn’t pay it back, then sold the house for $20,000. This kind of sale is known as a “straw purchase,” a dummy sale to transfer ownership of (usually) a house. It’s often a farce to get debt collectors off the owner’s back, executed with someone, like a friend of the owner, acting as a buyer. This puppet person “buys” a house so that the deed (see IREW) is transferred and someone new owns it, legally.

But the sale is often for a fractional amount, and sometimes with the seller’s money, and then the first owner (the “seller”) goes on living in and/or using the house, and for all self-interested purposes keeps it. That is, even though there’s a new owner on paper, the situation doesn’t change. This seemed to be the situation both in and with the house where I lived: Adrian sold it to AOTA, but Rosa and Eddie kept living there (as did I).

The second party is the infamous Mortgage Electronic Registration System, or MERS. MERS is an entity that was created by the banks but has governmental power. This is both true and hard to believe, so here is a 7,000-word Harper’s piece that both explains it and doesn’t make this article any longer. The piece details MERS’s rise to power and also suggests that it is the single most-guilty party in the whole mortgage crisis.

Something strange happened on May 5, 2016. The mortgage to the house where I lived was satisfied in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

MERS’s job was to expedite the bundling of mortgages. It did this by making them electronic, which made everything fast and easy for the banks.

Before MERS, mortgages were overseen by a county clerk, a local elected official like a sheriff or harbormaster. The creation of MERS undid 300 years of housing law that required elaborate, government-regulated, public preparation of legal-document-based and paper-trail-leaving evidence of who owned a home and where they got the money to buy it.

After MERS, there were no lawyers, paperwork, public court meetings, or elected officials involved. Now it was fast and easy for banks to buy, bundle, divide, sell, rebuy, rebundle, and redivide mortgages. All it took was a computer.

MERS’s actions were addressed after the crash. All the big banks used it to expedite sales, and its hideous behavior was one reason why the big mortgage servicers agreed to suspend foreclosures after the bubble burst.

In 2016, the five biggest mortgage service companies (including Chase, which once owned the loan on the house where I lived) entered into something called the National Mortgage Settlement, wherein these companies agreed to pay $25 billion to the state and federal agencies providing recovery aid for homeowners cheated by banks and lenders, with the indispensable help of MERS.

The satisfaction of the mortgage to the house where I lived is notarized by a lady named Jamie Gerber (real name; I’m looking at the document right now on ACRIS).

A notary is a state government-approved witness, and can be a judge, lawyer, or even someone at UPS. You may have seen a such a person use a stapler-looking thing to emboss a document with a state-issued seal — this officially notarizes it. But they’re supposed to do this only after they’ve witnessed you sign something, like a mortgage. This is to prevent fraud.

That Gerber is listed as a notary makes her sound neutral. She is not neutral. She worked for a place in Idaho Falls called Security Connections, a company specializing in something called document retrieval. “If you are missing documents or need a mortgage recorded,” reads an old ad, “we have a highly-trained department with the skills to locate and record these documents.” Their slogan is: “Bringing you peace of mind.”

Bank of America outsourced Security Connections to robosign mortgages until the bubble burst in 2008, and during the federal crackdown an employee named Krystal Hall gave deposition stating that she signed 400 mortgages a day without reading them. Robosigning expedited the bulk sales of mortgages, led to faster and bigger bundles, subdivisions, tranches, CDOs, SCDOs, (CDO)2s, etc.

If you’ve read this far, you know that after the bubble burst and these holding companies vanished, so did the mortgages they owned, and this led to a much greater number of homes with clouded titles. But what you probably don’t know is that all this led, eventually, to a much greater demand to uncloud these titles.

The creation of MERS undid 300 years of housing law that required elaborate, government-regulated, public preparation of legal-document-based and paper-trail-leaving evidence of who owned a home and where they got the money to buy it.

Based on the satisfaction of mortgage and the other filings available on ACRIS, here’s what I think happened: Adrian wanted to sell the house, which had a clouded title and was thus going to be very hard to sell. The chain of title had missing documents, documents with spaces left blank. The documents suggest Adrian hired Security Connections. There, in their building out by the airport in Idaho Falls, the missing documents mysteriously appeared. This is what their ads mean by “document retrieval.”

How do they do this?

They don’t do this, probably. Here’s what most likely goes on inside the 14,000-sq-ft windowless workspace at Security Connections:

(This too, is hypothetical, not to mention legally protective:)

First, employees re-create the missing documents (new hires need Photoshop experience). Next, they find people very loosely associated with the lenders, and ask them to sign the documents they’ve created. Once signed, the new documents are re-completed and notarized. Once notarized, they’re sent to whoever hired Security Connection, who files them with a county clerk. Then the documents, unless thoroughly fact-checked, will appear the same as the original. Then the clerk will sign them, completing the paper trail and unclouding the title. Now the house can be sold.

A lot of these sorts of places went away after the crisis, but Security Connections did not. Ten years later, it now belongs to First American Mortgage Solutions, which belongs to First American, a $5 billion company on the New York Stock Exchange. When I called First American’s press person, he said he “never heard of” Security Connections. Later, in a barter for more information about this article, he wrote, “I did not recognize the name until after I spoke to you.”

Security Connections is still here. And so is MERS. With a .org website and new slogan — “Convenient. Trusted. Seamless.” — MERSCORP, INC. appears to be only more powerful. Today this bank-created entity with government power reportedly holds titles to 60 million loans, half the homes in America.

6

The unclouding of the title is what happened to the house where I lived. And on May 26, 2016, the Satisfaction of Mortgage was filed with the city registrar of NYC’s Department of Finance.

Three weeks later, the deed was filed that transferred ownership of the house from AOTA LLC back to Barrington Adrian. The cost: $0.

That same day, Adrian refiled the deed, which transferred ownership of the house to a new LLC: 220 7th Street LLC.

The cost: $1.2 million.

But of course the dates on the Satisfaction of Mortgage and the deed transfers don’t line up. (Let me bring up ACRIS, yet again.) The deed transfers are from April 20, 2016, before the mortgage was released. So the house was sold before the title was cleared. It’s significant that the loan 220 7th Street LLC took out was on April 20. This suggests Adrian and 220 7th Street LLC are the ones who hired Security Connections to mysteriously locate complete and notarized documents that were previously missing or incomplete, although I’m no expert.

Bill Paatalo (real name) is an expert. He’s is a cop/loan officer turned private investigator and expert witness in chain-of-title analysis, and three years ago exposed Security Connections on the muckraking site Naked Capitalism. He was also willing to be interviewed for this article, and to review the paper trail Security Connections completed to the house where I lived.

“The chain of title appears to be pure, fraudulent garbage,” he said. “This is so utterly broken and defective they sent it out to a ‘fixer’ such as Security Connections to manufacture an illusory claim of title to fill their objective.”

A “fixer” is insider talk for a place that un-clouds titles, and something Paatalo knows a lot about. The millions of clouded titles, he explained, have created a great demand for fixers. We emailed about this for weeks. His final emailed statement was this:

THE BEHAVIORS THAT RESULTED IN THE $25B 'NATIONAL MORTGAGE SETTLEMENT' IN 2013 HAVE CONTINUED UNABATED TO THIS DAY. IN FACT, THEY'VE GOTTEN WORSE.

The ACRIS documents do have some issues, legally:

According to the mortgage documents, both of Adrian’s loans ($800,000 and $200,000) had belonged to Mortgage IT, and no Mortgage IT officer is mentioned in the chain of title. After Mortgage IT, the loans were then secured into trusts, so that the trusts were the only parties who could authorize the satisfactions. Neither trust is mentioned in the chain of title. Finally, the Satisfaction is a single document that describes not one but two loans. This may be illegal, and is known as a “two-fer” in the world of white-collar crime.

Nevertheless, things picked up after that. People started showing up at the house to take pictures and measure the steps. This sounds unbelievable, but I was on the phone with the FBI trying to put a wrench in the sale when I checked ACRIS and saw the house had been sold to 220 7th Street LLC. I texted Eddie, who said a judge was deciding how long everyone had to leave the house. I emailed LF, and then the phone rang.

“Whoa,” said LF. “You have court tomorrow.”

7

220 7th Street LLC was evicting the occupants. My court appearance in August 2016 was part of what’s called Summary Proceedings, the beginning of the eviction process. Eager to get underway, it appeared the owners had filed the paperwork serving the tenants without the proper predicate notice and notice of petition (telling them, “You’re being evicted.”). Rosa and Eddie hadn’t said anything, so they either didn’t know or did know and perhaps intercepted my legal notice, hoping I wouldn’t show up to court, and thus forfeiting my rights as a tenant.

“They’re not going to be glad to see you,” said LF.

So I went to court. The complaint read 220 7th Street LLC vs Rosa Perez, Eddie Perez, and John Does 1 to 5. I was John Doe 1.

No one else on either side showed up.

“Happens all the time,” said the court officer, and told me to go home.

Nothing more happened for a couple of weeks, and then the lawyer for 220 7th Street LLC called. He was Elio Forcina (real name), a guy with a Gmail address and a vintage website. When he found out I was a reporter, he pitched me the Christian genocide in Iraq story, and then he said we would talk later to work out a stipulation (aka “stip,” the legal agreement for moving out). He didn’t call again.

Then on August 4, 2016, someone slid a lawsuit under my door: 220 7th Street LLC v. Cole Louison, stemming from nonpayment of rent since they’d come to own the house in June. The dates were blank and there was false stuff, like that I had a lease with the LLC people I’d never even met. They also wanted me to pay the legal fees for Forcina, who texted me while I was reading the papers I had just been served: “Please call.”

LF says these were scare tactics. The hope was I would agree to move out quickly without fighting the lawsuit. But with LF’s help I negotiated a buyout of $5,000, and in the end we finally met and wrote up the stipulation. Forcina came to court with no pen and his shoes untied. The stip recognized I’d lived there since 2011 and had one month to leave. It was the first legal document recognizing my tenancy at the house where I lived for five years.

Outside the courtroom, I met a guy named Vinnie, an “agent” who’d been hired by the LLC to get everyone out. Later that day, Vinnie and I met around the corner from the house. He gave me an agreed-upon money order for $2,500 and said to avoid Rosa and Eddie. Three weeks later he came to the house with a guy who looked like a bouncer and handed me 25 $100 bills, which violated our money-order agreement. I gave him the keys.

(Weeks later, after standing off agents with their pitbull, Rosa and Eddie made a separate deal involving the LLC paying the moving and storage fees for their stuff. They’re now suing the LLC, saying their stuff was damaged in the move, and as this story was going to press, Vinnie called to ask could they pay me to write an affidavit about my time in the house.)

I’d never meet the new owner of the house, a guy named Yehoshua Allswang (real name), the sole member of 220 Street LLC, which of course bought the house from Adrian.

Adrian sold another property around this time, a big house in Flatbush with a driveway and a copula for $100,000 to another LLC. ACRIS shows he’d borrowed more than $2 million on it, and that the mortgage was satisfied in Texas by a company called Litton Loan Service, a branch of Goldman Sachs.

That title tells another story, a story even more surreal and preposterous than this one. The title to the house approaches performance art; the filings resemble legal graffiti. The pieces of paper he handed to a judge might as well be spattered with spit and outlined with his middle finger. They appear honkingly fraudulent. They raise screaming questions. And it’s all on ACRIS.

On August 4, 2016, someone slid a lawsuit under my door: 220 7th Street LLC v. Cole Louison, stemming from nonpayment of rent since they’d come to own the house in June.

The chain of title suggests that Adrian created an alter ego named Barrington Ebanks. Barrington Ebanks bought the home in 2003 for $325,000 and, over the next decade, borrowed steadily against it. At one point Barrington Ebanks sold the house to Barrington Adrian. Another time, the mortgage was reassigned to DejaVu Act II, Inc. A year before the sale, the mortgage was reassigned from MERS to Deutsche Bank for $1. And when Barrington Ebanks took out a third mortgage on the home, the lender’s real name was Howard Stern. At one point, records suggest that Adrian and Ebanks appeared together in court, with agents.

It’s unlikely that two people with the same unusual name would be involved in this deal.

The house where I lived was gutted, refinished, and listed for $1.6 million. But it didn’t sell, probably due to the clouded history. (“A house’s title can be unclouded; the history cannot,” said guess who). The house was taken off the market, gutted again and then doubled in size, building over where the backyard used to be. And then, in the middle of construction, on May 5, 2017, 220 7th Street LLC took out an additional loan on the house and compounded it, for a total mortgage of $1.8 million. Adrian had done the same thing almost exactly 10 years ago, just before the bubble burst.

LF, again: “This is history repeating itself.”

Rosa now lives with her daughter in public housing in Coney Island. She doesn’t have a bedroom. Eddie drops her off most mornings at Elsie’s house. Rosa’s her caretaker now, still looking for an apartment with Eddie. Elsie’s upstairs apartment is empty, but she doesn’t want him living there.

The house is still not finished.

I moved upstate.

Cole Hawes Louison is the author of The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler, And The Fantastic History Of Skateboarding. Photos by Chris Mottalini.
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