Opening Acts Newsletter: March 19, 2014

United States Alleges Disability Discrimination by Major NYC Developer and Architects

Results of FHJC Testing Investigation Provided to U.S. Attorney

On March 17, 2014, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that a major developer and architects based in New York City engaged in a pattern and practice of developing rental apartment buildings that are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The suit alleges that Related Companies, Inc., along with its affiliates Tribeca Green LLC and BPC Green LLC, and two architecture firms, Robert A. M. Stern Architects, LLP and Ismael Levya Architects, P.C., designed and constructed One Carnegie Hill and Tribeca Green, two rental complexes in Manhattan with more than 750 total units, in violation of the design and construction requirements of the federal Fair Housing Act. These provisions of the Fair Housing Act have been in effect since March 1991. In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) conducted an undercover testing investigation at both buildings and subsequently handed over the evidence to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In a news release, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “We will not allow developers and architects who deprive people with disabilities of accessible housing to evade the consequences of their failure to comply with clear, long-standing federal civil rights laws. When developers demonstrate an unwillingness to design and construct accessible housing in accordance with federal law, this Office will not hesitate to use its enforcement tools to compel the developers to make both their preexisting and future constructions accessible.”

In commenting on the announcement, FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated “Compliance will only be achieved when developers and architects fully understand that these federal civil rights laws are going to be enforced and there are serious consequences for continued non-compliance. The enforcement action taken by the U.S. Attorney’s Office underscores the fact that accessible housing is a vital civil right.”

Related Companies, Inc. is one of the largest developers of rental housing in New York City. The suit alleges that an injunction is necessary to ensure that the defendants’ discriminatory practices are not repeated in other rental properties in New York City and elsewhere. The United States is also seeking damages for persons who may have been harmed by the defendants’ unlawful practices, and a civil penalty to vindicate the public interest.

The United States alleges that the 475-unit One Carnegie Hill contains inaccessible conditions, which include steps and excessively high thresholds that interfere with accessible routes in the common areas and within individual units; kitchens that lack sufficient width for maneuvering by people using wheelchairs; electrical outlets and mailboxes that are not fully usable by people using wheelchairs; and bathrooms that lack sufficient clear floor space for maneuvering by people using wheelchairs. At the 278-unit Tribeca Green complex, the complaint alleges that the building contains excessively high thresholds that interfere with accessible routes in the common areas and within individual units; bathroom fixtures that prevent installation of grab bars; doorways in the common areas that lack sufficient clearance; kitchens that lack sufficient width for maneuvering by people using wheelchairs; trash rooms that lack accessible hardware; electrical outlets and mailboxes that are not fully accessible to people using wheelchairs; and bathrooms that lack sufficient clear floor space for maneuvering by people using wheelchairs.

The testing investigation, conducted by the FHJC in 2006, was funded under a grant received from the Fair Housing Initiatives Program of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).