NATIONAL NEWS

A loophole got him a free New York hotel stay for five years. Then he claimed to own the building

Feb 15, 2024, 1:50 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — For five years, a New York City man managed to live rent-free in a landmark Manhattan hotel by exploiting an obscure local housing law.

But prosecutors this week said Mickey Barreto went too far when he filed paperwork claiming ownership of the entire New Yorker Hotel building — and tried to charge another tenant rent.

On Wednesday, he was arrested and charged with filing false property records. But Barreto, 48, says he was surprised when police showed up at his boyfriend’s apartment with guns and bullet-proof shields. As far as he is concerned, it should be a civil case, not a criminal one.

“I said ’Oh, I thought you were doing something for Valentine’s Day to spice up the relationship until I saw the female officers,’” Barreto recalled telling his boyfriend.

Barreto’s indictment on fraud and criminal contempt charges is just the latest chapter in the years-long legal saga that began when he and his boyfriend paid about $200 to rent one of the more than 1,000 rooms in the towering Art Deco structure built in 1930.

Barreto says he had just moved to New York from Los Angeles when his boyfriend told him about a loophole that allows occupants of single rooms in buildings constructed before 1969 to demand a six-month lease. Barreto claimed that because he’d paid for a night in the hotel, he counted as a tenant.

He asked for a lease and the hotel promptly kicked him out.

“So I went to court the next day. The judge denied. I appealed to the (state) Supreme Court and I won the appeal,” Barreto said, adding that at a crucial point in the case, lawyers for the building’s owners didn’t show up, allowing him to win by default.

The judge ordered the hotel to give Baretto a key. He said he lived there until July 2023 without paying any rent because the building’s owners never wanted to negotiate a lease with him, but they couldn’t kick him out.

Manhattan prosecutors acknowledge that the housing court gave Barreto “possession” of his room. But they say he didn’t stop there: In 2019, he uploaded a fake deed to a city website, purporting to transfer ownership of the entire building to himself from the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which bought the property in 1976. The church was founded in South Korea by a self-proclaimed messiah, the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Barreto then tried to charge various entities as the owner of the building “including demanding rent from one of the hotel’s tenants, registering the hotel under his name with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for water and sewage payments, and demanding the hotel’s bank transfer its accounts to him,” the prosecutor’s office said in the statement.

“As alleged, Mickey Barreto repeatedly and fraudulently claimed ownership of one of the City’s most iconic landmarks, the New Yorker Hotel,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

Located a block from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the New Yorker has never been among the city’s most glamorous hotels, but it has long been among its largest. Its huge, red “New Yorker” sign makes it an oft-photographed landmark. Inventor Nikola Tesla lived at the hotel for for a decade. NBC broadcasted from the hotel’s Terrace Room. Boxers, including Muhammad Ali, stayed there when they had bouts at the Garden. It closed as a hotel in 1972 and was used for years for church purposes before part of the building reopened as a hotel in 1994.

The Unification Church sued Barreto in 2019 over the deed claim, including his representations on LinkedIn as the building’s owner. The case is ongoing, but a judge ruled that Barreto can’t portray himself as the owner in the meantime.

A Unification Church spokesperson declined to comment about his arrest, citing the ongoing civil case.

In that case, Baretto argued that the judge who gave him “possession” of his room indirectly gave him the entire building because it had never been subdivided.

“I never intended to commit any fraud. I don’t believe I ever committed any fraud,” Barreto said. “And I never made a penny out of this.”

Barreto said his legal wrangling is activism aimed at denying profits to the Unification Church. The church, known for conducting mass weddings, has been sued over its recruiting methods and criticized by some over its friendly relationship with North Korea, where Moon was born.

He said he has never hired a lawyer for the civil cases and has always represented himself. On Wednesday, he secured a criminal defense attorney.

National News

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A loophole got him a free New York hotel stay for five years. Then he claimed to own the building