NEW YORK — Sanford Solny, a real estate investor and disbarred lawyer who has been accused of stealing dozens of homes in New York City, mostly from Black and Latino homeowners, was charged Wednesday with crimes related to the theft of four more properties in Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office charged Solny with criminal possession of stolen property and scheming to defraud homeowners. Prosecutors accused Solny of renting out some of the disputed homes to unwitting tenants and collecting nearly $64,000 in rent.
Solny faces similar charges from a 2020 indictment, in which he was accused of stealing eight other homes. The two indictments have been consolidated. If convicted, he faces a minimum of three to six years in prison.
Solny, 65, surrendered to authorities Wednesday and appeared in court in handcuffs. He pleaded not guilty and then was released. He is scheduled to be in court in March for the latest charges. After announcing the new charges, the district attorney’s office withdrew a plea deal offer in which Solny would serve four to 12 years in prison.
The new case follows an investigation last year by The New York Times that revealed that Solny, through a network of shell companies, had been accused in civil and criminal court by 40 homeowners of stealing their property in a scheme known as deed theft.
As of July, companies controlled by Solny still owned 19 of the disputed properties — an eclectic mix of coveted brownstones and grass-hemmed houses in gentrifying areas of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that could produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent a year. In some instances, city agencies contributed to his earnings by subsidizing the rent for low-income tenants.
Deed theft can take many forms, but homeowners have repeatedly accused Solny of one version.
Homeowners at risk of foreclosure are told they qualify for a short sale, a deal in which the lender settles for less than the balance of the mortgage. The homeowners usually believe that they are selling the home in exchange for debt forgiveness and sometimes a small amount of cash.
Instead, the owners sign documents, often under false pretenses, that transfer the property to another party, leaving the former homeowner saddled with the unpaid mortgage debt. Yearslong legal battles can play out in civil court, often ending in the lender seizing the property — but not before the fraudulent owner extracts value by renting the home out.
Many of the homeowners who have accused Solny of fraud live in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in central Brooklyn. The four properties in the latest indictment unveiled Wednesday — homes in East New York, Ocean Hill, Canarsie and East Flatbush that are valued at a total of nearly $2.3 million — were transferred to companies controlled by Solny between 2012 and 2019 for a fraction of their current market value, according to the district attorney’s office.
“Mr. Solny did not conduct these transactions in the fraudulent manner alleged,” said Michael Farkas, his defense lawyer.
The new indictment marks the third time Solny has faced criminal charges for deed theft. In addition to the 2020 indictment, he pleaded guilty in Queens Supreme Court two years earlier to crimes related to the theft of 10 homes and was sentenced to up to five years of probation. The court appointed a monitor in 2018 to review his future business deals and flag any suspicious transactions.
But the Times found a suspicious transaction connected to Solny a year after his probation began.
Elizabeth Lewis, a 77-year-old retired bank worker, told the Times that Solny said he would help broker a short sale in 2019 for her sister’s two-bedroom home in East Flatbush.
Lewis said she signed paperwork on behalf of her sister, thinking she was authorizing a sale that would pay off a reverse mortgage. In reality, she had signed over the home to a company controlled by Solny, and the reverse mortgage debt remained unpaid. A short sale was never completed. Solny cut her a check for $5,000, claiming it was “just to be generous,” she said. The home today is worth about 100 times that sum.
“I was so confused; they just rush, rush, rush,” Lewis said about the day she signed documents at Solny’s Borough Park office. “I didn’t sell it to him; he was to sell it for me,” she said.
Solny was disbarred this month because of his 2018 conviction. Previously, he had been suspended from practicing law in 2012 for pilfering $600,000 from his dying uncle, according to a disciplinary board decision.
The latest deed theft charges against Solny likely violate his probation terms, and a Queens judge will decide at his next probation hearing later this month whether to be lenient or to rule that he violated the terms, and send him to prison. Solny never disclosed the purchase of Lewis’ home, according to Brian Sanvidge, the court-appointed monitor assigned to review his transactions. Deed theft remains a challenging and rarely prosecuted crime in New York.
From July 2014 through February 2022, there were more than 3,350 complaints of deed theft in New York City, almost half of which were in Brooklyn, according to the city’s Department of Finance. The only recourse for many deed theft victims is to pursue restitution in civil court.
In a statement, Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney, said that his office’s efforts, which included prison sentences in several cases, have contributed to a decline in deed fraud cases in the city. There were 154 deed fraud complaints citywide in 2021, down from 665 in 2015, in part because of increased enforcement, a spokesperson for his office said.
On Tuesday, Gonzalez announced that a Long Island man was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for stealing the home of an 89-year-old woman in Brooklyn.
But since 2014, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office has only brought charges in 28 cases of deed theft.