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Foreclosures Empty Homes, and Criminals Fill Them Up
By Michael Wilson
Published: October 14, 2011
The boarded-up homes that changed the face of Jamaica, Queens, in recent years were bad enough, the flotsam of the record wave of housing foreclosures that roared through the streets like nowhere else in New York City.
But those vacant homes are now recalled almost fondly. For nature, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum, and so do criminals. The police and neighbors say those vacant homes are filling with drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, gang members, squatters and copper thieves.
“They’re becoming a magnet for criminal activity,” said Deputy Inspector Miltiadis Marmara, the commanding officer of the 113th Precinct in South Jamaica. “They hang out in these abandoned homes that may be foreclosed, or the owners walked away.” He added, “Every day we respond to something to that effect.”
The police do not keep statistics specifically on crime rates involving foreclosed homes. But Inspector Marmara said his officers had seen a rise both in vacant homes and in crimes occurring in those homes — like theft of copper pipes for scrap, which has spiked in the last year.
It is not uncommon for a team of officers to research property records for an address — in hope of tracking down an owner to make a complaint — only to find another foreclosure, he said.
People who live on these blocks said criminals flocked to newly vacant homes that were taken in foreclosure.
“You see them smoking their drugs in the driveway at night,” said a community activist who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retaliation. “They have parties. If the cops come, they run. During the day, they’re quiet as a church mouse.”
Councilman James Sanders Jr., who represents a nearby Queens district, said the problem was growing. “And why wouldn’t it happen?” he said. “We’re seeing activities where people are having strip shows in these homes.” Jamaica’s councilman, Leroy G. Comrie Jr., said: “I just drove by a house we boarded up, and it’s open again and there are squatters living there. It fell into foreclosure because the developer ran out of money.”
In June, the 113th Precinct began keeping a list of addresses that appear to be vacant and poised to shelter criminals, if they are not doing so already. Inspector Marmara has shared that list — which has grown to 75 addresses — with the New York City Department of Buildings and elected officials who work with the precinct, he said, adding that 25 new addresses will join the list soon.
“It’s destroying our quality of life here,” he said. “We can’t say, ‘Ah, we tried, and it’s not working.’ ”
On 146th Street near Rockaway Boulevard, there is a tidy, white-sided home of two floors and an attic. Somebody once cared enough to cover the front in faux stonework, evoking a cottage. According to the police, while it may not have been a foreclosed property, people were living in the house illegally last summer, and officers raided it at 6 a.m. on June 3.
They found a man, Donald Kelly, 34, sitting in a second-floor living room, and a woman, Jessica Thomas, 23, nearby, according to a criminal complaint charging them with drug and gun crimes. “I have been in and out of here for the past two months,” the woman said. Mr. Kelly had rented the home in the past and still got mail there, the police said.
The police found two plastic bags containing cocaine on a stove in the kitchen, along with a scale and 94 little bags for packaging drugs. There was more cocaine on top of the refrigerator, and inside, marijuana on a shelf and $1,100 in cash in the butter rack.
More cocaine, cash and cellphones were found in a bedroom, and a loaded pistol turned up in the attic. After clearing the house, the police opened a little shed in the back and found a man who had slept through the raid, Gregory Bell, 36, and another loaded gun. He faces similar charges.
“We had a feeling they were selling drugs, but we didn’t see any activity,” said a neighbor and former city corrections officer who declined to give her name for fear of her safety. “They never went to work.”
Just last week, gang members broke into a home on Watson Avenue that was vacated the day before by tenants frustrated by mold, said the community activist. “POV City,” someone scrawled in red — as in Bloods-red — ink on the outside door to the basement. “YG — Young Girls.”
The police came, but there was no one to arrest, no sign of anyone besides the writing on the door.
“I guess that’s their calling card,” the activist said.*******