QUEENS — Dozens of homes are sitting empty in Jamaica, blighting the neighborhood with squatters, gang activity and drug dealers, residents and local officials say.
The abandoned properties, some of which became vacant following the foreclosure crisis, are usually easy to spot with overgrown grass and garbage piling up in front of them.
One, on 166th Street, was used as a hiding place for a gunman following the shooting of Jerwaine Gorman, a father of three, last month, officials said. As of Wednesday, nobody had been charged in that case, police said.
Neighbors said the home's previous residents moved out about two years ago. Some time later, they said, a group of men moved in.
“There was always a lot of cars parked outside, a lot of people going back and forth," said one neighbor, who did not want his name to be used. "They were so loud, always yelling and fighting.”
“I hope they won’t be back,” said another neighbor.
The New York City Housing Authority, which owns the house, said it "has been cooperating with police and has re-secured this property."
"We recognize the significant impact a vacant home can have on the fabric of a community, including neighborhood safety," a spokeswoman for the agency said.
According to local elected officials and published reports, of all foreclosures in New York City over the last two years, almost a third have been in Jamaica.
Currently, there are nearly 7,700 properties in the neighborhood that are in some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, a national real estate database which included five Jamaica zip codes in its analysis (11435, 11432, 11433, 11436 and 11434).
More than 7 percent of all homes in the area are vacant, according to RealtyTrac.
In most cases, banks that take over foreclosed properties "usually hire a property manager" to maintain them, according to Isa Abdur-Rahman, a Jamaica-based real estate attorney.
But in some instances "the banks are not doing their job," said Yvonne Reddick, district manager of Community Board 12, which covers portions of Jamaica, St. Albans, Rochdale Village and South Jamaica.
Reddick estimates that at least about 100 homes in the neighborhood have been taken over by squatters. It was not clear how that compared to years past.
"[Banks] should be forced to seal the house, to keep the property clean in a timely manner and that’s not happening," Reddick said.
Residents of 160th Street, near 134th Avenue, said that after the owner of a house on their block died about seven years ago, the property was left to his elderly sibling, who was not able to take care of it.
Neighbors said different people started coming in and out of the house. At some point a water pipe burst, causing further damage to the home and leaking onto the street.
In mid-April, a fire broke out. “That was a very scary moment,” said Michelle Mosley, 52, who owns two homes on the block.
She said that after the neighbors reached out to local elected officials, the city recently boarded up the house but the half burned structure ruins the look of the quiet block, she said.
The experience of having squatters next door can also be dangerous and scary, residents said.
Kerry Hamilton, 47, of Addisleigh Park, said squatters moved into a house next door to her on 117th Street, near Murdock Avenue, in October 2013.
“They were running a whorehouse out of that house,” she said.
Hamilton said that in addition to prostitution, the squatters were also renting rooms at the house.
At some point, she said, she counted 11 people living in the house.
The house, she said, had little value because the family who lived there before abandoning it took a reverse mortgage, which extracts equity from the property.
Hamilton said she called police many times, but officers were not able to go inside without the owner.
“Once they got settled in, they acted like they belong there,” Hamilton said.
“Summertime was horrendous,” said Andrea Scarborough, the president of the Addisleigh Park Civic Organization. “These people held the whole block in terror.”
Hamilton said the most frightening part of the ordeal was having numerous strangers on the block.
“Those guys were always drunk and high,” she said. “At one point it felt like living in a prison yard.”
According to New York’s housing law, people living at the same address for at least 30 days are regarded as tenants. Getting rid of them might require landlords to conduct long-lasting legal eviction proceedings.
Deputy Inspector Frederick Grover, the commanding officer of the 113th Precinct, which covers South Jamaica, Addisleigh Park, St. Albans and Hollis, said a recent community council meeting that police involvement is usually limited to cases when criminal activity is taking place.
Reddick said that "the community has to work together” to apply pressure on banks or negligent owners to take care of decaying properties in the neighborhood.
“If there is an abandoned house or a house in foreclosure on your block, you can’t say ‘thank God it’s not me,’” she said.
“It affects everyone — it has a great effect on the quality of life and it affects your property value.”