matter of principal

How Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer Nearly Lost Her Home

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attends a press conference at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

For 24 years, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and her husband, Calvin Snyder, have lived in the same four-story Upper West Side home.

The landmarked West 95th Street townhouse, a half block from Central Park, sits within the district Brewer represented in the City Council for 12 years. She and Snyder raised foster children there.

And until earlier this year, the couple was in danger of losing their home.

That’s because Brewer and Snyder became entangled in a two-year foreclosure case stemming from five years during which the couple did not pay their mortgage bills, court records show.

A lack of money was not to blame, said the Democrat, who made $179,200 last year. Instead, the drama started with Brewer’s well-known stubbornness.

“I wanted to pay my own taxes and they wouldn’t let me,” she said, referring to Ocwen, the Miami-based company that handled billing on the couple’s mortgage.

Brewer and Snyder originally took out their loan in 1996 through the Dime Savings Bank, an established New York City institution. But when Dime sold the mortgage into an investment trust — as many lenders did during the 2000s real estate bubble — the ground rules changed.

Ocwen typically insists on paying property taxes on behalf of borrowers, to protect investors. But that didn’t sit well with Brewer, who told THE CITY she’s “more stubborn” than most folks about financial matters.

“I like to check my own bills,” she said. “I’m just like that. Like, why are you charging me for this? I always find mistakes on my credit cards, always.”

Plus, she had done research on Ocwen and said she found reason to be concerned.

In 2013, Ocwen was ordered to pay more than $2 billion to homeowners over “systemic misconduct at every stage of the mortgage servicing process,” according to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The company remains the subject of a 2017 lawsuit brought by the Bureau over an alleged years-long pattern of abuses of customers, including charging hidden fees — and botching property tax payments. That same year, more than 20 states jointly barred the firm from taking on any more customers.

Last year, Ocwen ranked dead last on a J.D. Power survey of customer satisfaction with mortgage servicers.

‘It’s Unbelievable’

Brewer said she was determined to pay property tax bills on her own.

“As an elected official and a city resident, I like to see what they are, I like to see if they’re correct,” Brewer said. “But they won’t let you. It’s unbelievable.”

So, she stopped paying her mortgage. That was in July 2013. The bank began foreclosure proceedings four years later, demanding $462,569, court documents show.

Over the next year and a half, Brewer and Snyder missed multiple court conferences to resolve the case, and did not defend themselves in court. Brewer said it was all because she wanted to keep pushing back on “just an awful company.”

“You want to fight because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Upper West Side townhouse (RIGHT), May 10, 2019.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Upper West Side townhouse (RIGHT), May 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Ocwen spokesman Dico Akseraylian said the company couldn’t comment on individual cases. He did say the company allow some clients to manage their own tax payments if they meet certain financial criteria.

“We empathize with any individual or family facing foreclosure. Ocwen is committed to working with distressed borrowers to find the right solution to allow them to keep their homes,” he said in a statement, adding the company has completed more than 800,000 loan modifications since 2008, more than 55,000 of them in New York State.

With no response in court from Brewer, Ocwen’s attorneys moved to have her household declared in default by a judge in October 2018. Days later, court documents show, an attorney for Brewer and Snyder appeared in court, and soon after began a process to resolve the case.

The borough president said she decided to end the court battle because her packed schedule didn’t leave enough time to put up a proper fight.

“I don’t like to lose … but I couldn’t, time-wise,” she said. “After a while you just say, I don’t have the energy for this.”

By January, the bank’s attorney had withdrawn the request for a default judgment, saying the “loan has been paid off,” records indicate. City property records show the loan paid off on February 28. The judge in the case ordered the matter closed.

“I paid the whole thing off, so it’s done,” Brewer said.

‘Incompetence in the Industry’

Few New Yorkers have the means to so easily resolve a foreclosure case, mortgage experts told THE CITY. But many have struggled with mortgage servicers, they said.

“There is a tremendous amount of incompetence in the industry,” said Jacob Inwald, director of foreclosure prevention at Legal Services NYC.

Inwald said he’s seen servicers improperly allocate mortgage payments and botch escrow accounts, of the kind Ocwen used to pay Brewer’s taxes. He’s sometimes encountered cases where an error by a company causes a homeowner to default.

Inwald’s advice to homeowners who have a mortgage issue — or are served papers in a foreclosure — is to get help as soon as possible.

“These debts increase with every month, so the mortgage servicers have an incentive for it to be a lengthy, delayed process,” he said.

Publicly funded foreclosure help is free and available to New Yorkers through the Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) and accessible by calling 3-1-1, he noted. In New York City, the HOPP provider for foreclosure help is the Center for NYC Neighborhoods.

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