INWOOD — A woman scammed several Uptown residents out of thousands of dollars by promising them apartments in a new affordable housing development but then vanishing with their cash — leaving at least one family homeless, police and the victims said.
Jennifer Ricardo, 33, posed as a leasing agent and charged the victims between $2,000 and $3,000 in deposit money to secure apartments at 552 Academy St., going as far as writing up phony leases and handing over fake keys, authorities and victims said.
Ana Villega, 37, said through a translator that she gave Ricardo nearly $3,000 for the chance to move into her own apartment with her partner and two young daughters. Villega, who worked as a cleaning woman, said she had previously only been able to afford to rent rooms in other families’ apartments.
“It was an opportunity to have a home with my children,” Villega said.
Instead, Villega explained, she lost all of her savings and was also recently laid off from her job. She and her family have been staying with a friend for about a month, but plan to enter the city’s shelter system this week, she said.
“It affected me very much,” Villega said through a translator. “Sometimes I just cry and cry. I feel very hurt.”
Elsa Martinez, 32, said she lost about $2,700 to Ricardo and grew suspicious of the arrangement after she had handed her money over.
“I realized it was false because once I gave her the money, she never called again, only texted,” Martinez said through a translator.
Martinez, who has three children and sells accessories, said the scam came at a particularly tough time.
“This was right before the holidays. I could not buy my children some of their Christmas presents,” Martinez said. “It was hard to earn that money.”
Martinez’s sister also paid Ricardo $2,700, she said.
All of the women said they were introduced to Ricardo by friends or family members who fell victim to the alleged scam. It was not clear how Ricardo initially connected with the victims.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat said at a press conference Monday that units in the building were only available through a lottery run by the city. More than 50,000 people applied to the lottery, which offered about 30 apartments, Rodriguez said. The city does not ask for money to secure a spot in an affordable housing development.
Rodriguez said Ricardo went so far as to draw up faux leases and have keys made for the apartments. The families did not realize they had been scammed until they tried to gain entry to the building on Dec. 24 and found their keys didn’t work.
“They dreamed that they will be able to get a decent apartment,” the councilman said. “It is a crime when someone takes advantage of hardworking New Yorkers.”
Rodriguez and Espaillat said it is believed that Ricardo fled to the Dominican Republic after pocketing the cash. The NYPD declined to name Ricardo, but confirmed they are searching for a 33-year-old woman in connection with four grand larceny cases at the address for taking victims' deposits but never delivering the promised units.
Espaillat said these families were particularly vulnerable because of the region's lack of affordable housing.
“There is an affordable housing crisis in New York State, New York City,” Espaillat said. “For families like this one, young moms with children who have a difficult time finding affordable housing, they fell prey to this scam artist.”
The building, which was evacuated by the Department of Buildings in 2011, recently underwent a gut renovation thanks to a $22 million investment from the city.