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Opening Acts: April 30, 2015

African Americans Confront Barriers to Renting at Commack Apartment Complex

Testing investigation leads to filing of fair housing lawsuit

On Thursday, April 30, 2015, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), ERASE Racism, and seven African American testers filed a lawsuit in federal district court (S.D.N.Y.) alleging that the owners and managers of a suburban apartment building located in the Town of Smithtown in Suffolk County discriminate against African Americans.

The case resulted from a six-month investigation in 2014 that was jointly funded and sponsored by the FHJC, a regional civil rights organization, and ERASE Racism, a non-profit organization dedicated to exposing and eliminating racial disparities on Long Island. The FHJC deployed African American and white testers, posing as prospective renters, to inquire about apartments at the 107-unit Mayfair Garden Apartments located in Commack in the Town of Smithtown, a predominantly white community in Suffolk County. In all instances, African American testers were assigned characteristics that made them slightly more qualified than their white counterparts.

According to the lawsuit, the investigation yielded evidence that African American and white testers who inquired about renting an apartment at Mayfair Garden Apartments were provided different information, service, and treatment based on their race in violation of fair housing laws. While the discriminatory treatment differed from test to test, some examples of how African American testers were treated less favorably than their white counterparts included being:

• Lied to about available apartments or when apartments are available
• Told about and/or shown fewer available apartments
• Informed about fictional waiting lists
• Refused a rental application when one was requested
• Denied an opportunity to view an available apartment
• Quoted a higher rent for the same available apartment

The lawsuit names the Manhattan-based Empire Management America Corporation, Square Realty Group LLC, and John Doe a/k/a Mike, the building superintendent, as defendants. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure future compliance with fair housing laws as well as damages and attorneys’ fees. The plaintiffs are represented by Diane L. Houk and Theodor O. Oxholm with the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.

ERASE Racism President Elaine Gross commented that, “Discrimination is not an idea of the past. As I stand here today, in 2015, we are still engaged in a fight to overcome discrimination and make fair housing a reality on Long Island, the 10th most racially segregated metropolitan region in the country.“

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg commented, “The facts in this case illustrate the subtle and multifarious nature of contemporary housing discrimination. When white testers inquired about apartments, they were provided assistance, encouragement, and accurate information. In contrast, African American testers were greeted with a mélange of misrepresentations to discourage and exclude them.” Freiberg added “This type of persistent and systemic racial discrimination in housing perpetuates residential segregation and a host of other inequalities by preventing African Americans from moving to communities with affordable housing, high-performing schools, employment opportunities, and other amenities.”