A recent story in The Nation
magazine highlights the activities of a pair of brothers, questionable real estate operators with a dubious history who are attempting to claim title to a once-neglected, now-valuable piece of land with a deed that appears to be
of suspicious origin (to put it kindly) in the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The lot, a one-time eyesore, had been converted by area residents into a neighborhood communal vegetable garden:
- In late summer 2014, after nearly two years of silence, Michael and Joseph Makhani appeared at 237 Maple Street claiming ownership of the land. They are principals in Housing Urban Development LLC. First it was just the two of them. They ripped down garden signs attached to the fence at the front of the property and, according to affidavits, warned the gardeners who were present, “You’ll leave when the backhoes get here.”
The next morning, a moving truck pulled up and a crew emerged. The men went right to work, ripping up a vegetable bed. Nancy Treuber rushed to the scene, as did several others. “Moms, kids—word got out, and members left work to meet on the sidewalk in front of the garden,” she recalls. They milled about, unsure what to do, yet certain that their presence mattered. Treuber pulled out her phone and filmed the action. Her voice is heard off camera, calm but loud: “You are vandalizing the property, please do not do that.” The crew ignores her, continuing with their work.
One of the gardeners called the cops. They arrived within minutes, as did the Makhanis. The cops told the Makhanis to come back with a court order, and so the legal battle began. Three months later, the Makhanis filed applications with the city to construct a five-story, 17-unit luxury-condo building on the lot. Their applications are still pending.
The Makhanis have produced a deed that shows they acquired the property in 2003 from Alan and Alexander Kirton—who they claim were nephews of the deceased owners—for just $5,000. The hypermodest purchase price is itself suspicious, but the Makhanis’ deed also has numerous irregularities: The notary’s signature is illegible, and his or her name and license number are missing from the copies filed with the court; the notary misspelled the city (“Worchester” instead of “Worcester”) and state (“Massachusets” instead of “Massachusetts”) where the deed was ostensibly recorded; and the Social Security number provided for Alexander Kirton, whose signature appears throughout the documents, belongs to someone else. “He doesn’t exist,” says Paula Segal, the lawyer representing the gardeners. “Or he’s using someone else’s Social Security number. Either way, it’s a problem.”
The deed isn’t the only bit of questionable paperwork. When Housing Urban Development applied to begin construction on its luxury-condo building, the application was submitted under the name Mike McKany. This is, one can assume, Michael Makhani, but spelling variations can make it harder to match disparate public records and, thus, easier to avoid scrutiny.
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Michael and Joseph Makhani are brothers who together operate several limited-liability companies (LLCs) involved in housing. They have a long record in the sordid history of real-estate bubbles over the past 20 years.
In 1998, Joseph Makhani was sentenced to three months in prison for rigging bids at foreclosure auctions; he was also convicted of filing false deeds in Queens. In the years leading up to the foreclosure crisis, the Makhanis used Housing Urban Development to sell subprime mortgages in low-income neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. Their deceptive practices are documented in a 2008 student film, Subprimed, in which the filmmakers call the Makhanis to ask about their corporation’s misleading name. Joseph Makhani certainly doesn’t dodge the question: “If the client is stupid, that’s not my problem. We’re not going to have classes to teach people how to read.”
While investigating other claims that the Makhanis have made on properties throughout New York, Segal came in contact with a lawyer named Marisa Falero. In 2009, Falero was appointed to evaluate the estate of an elderly property owner named Queen Dobbins. When Dobbins died, Falero put the Harlem building she owned up for sale on behalf of her estate. When the residential building went on the market, a man named John Zi came forward and claimed he already owned it. He produced a contract for sale showing that he had acquired the building from a woman named Virginia Kelley, a longtime friend of Dobbins who Zi claimed had an ownership stake.
Falero knew Zi was lying: Kelley did not exist in the ownership papers. But when she went to Dobbins’s former apartment to retrieve the documents, they were gone. “They had been in her apartment,” Falero says. “They took everything of importance out.” On behalf of the estate, she asked the court to invalidate Zi’s deed immediately. “They showed up in front of the judge, and the little old lady couldn’t form a sentence,” she says of the frail Kelley.
Eventually, Zi was indicted for five instances of deed fraud, thanks in part to recordings obtained by Falero in which Zi admits to stealing documents from Queen Dobbins—and identifies the Makhanis as his partners.
In one conversation, Zi can be heard describing a scheme organized by the Makhanis to “hijack” titles throughout the city. And yet the Makhanis are still in the real-estate business today. Segal created a database of 99 properties associated with them since 2001, as well as a network of LLCs supposedly doing business out of the same address on file for Housing Urban Development. It’s from this address that the Makhanis have sent out teams of lawyers to file cases against the Maple Street gardeners.