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Opening Acts: May 12, 2016

Landlord Rebuffs Renters Based on Race and Source of Income

Federal Fair Housing Lawsuit Details Discrimination Against African Americans and People with Rental Subsidies

On May 12, 2016, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), three African American testers, and a woman who was searching for housing with a rental subsidy, filed a lawsuit in federal district court (SDNY) alleging that Kosova Properties, Inc., Mulliner & Properties, Inc., Burr Properties LLC, Dardania Properties LLC, Nezaj Realty LLC, and Hamdi Nezaj discriminate on the basis of race and source of income.  Kosova Properties manages nineteen buildings with more than 285 rental units in the Bronx and Manhattan.  The lawsuit alleges that the defendants’ practices constitute discrimination based on race and source of income in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law and the federal Fair Housing Act.

Testing Yields Evidence of Race Discrimination

The FHJC conducted a testing investigation over six months in 2015.  During the FHJC investigation, African American and white testers inquired about renting apartments by visiting the Defendants’ rental office at 2126-30 Muliner Avenue.  Some of the results of these tests, as described in the complaint, are as follows:

  • On July 15, 2015, a white man met with Hamdi Nezaj and inquired about one-bedroom apartments. Nezaj told him that two one-bedroom apartments were coming available and showed him one of the apartments.   The next day, Mr. Nezaj told an African American woman that there were “no vacancies” in July and that he did not know if anything would be available in August.  The tester noted an “Apartment Available” sign and said “The sign there says you are renting.  Are you renting anything right now?” Mr. Nezaj replied “I don’t have anything.  I only rent what I have, I don’t have anything.”  The white tester called Mr. Nezaj back on July 28 and was informed that both apartments he was told about two weeks earlier were still available for rent.
  • On August 25, 2015, a white man met with Mr. Nezaj and inquired about renting an apartment. Nezaj told him about two one-bedroom apartments coming available in the Muliner Avenue building and a two-bedroom apartment located in the Pelham Bay neighborhood.  Mr. Nezaj showed the white tester a one-bedroom apartment in the basement and encouraged him to come back the next day to view the other one-bedroom apartment because the floors had just been sealed and were still wet. Approximately five minutes later on the same day, an African American man met with Mr. Nezaj and inquired about renting a one or two bedroom apartment.   Mr. Nezaj told him that he had no two bedroom apartments available for rent, that the only one bedroom he had in the Muliner Avenue building had wet floors, and that it would be two days before he could show the apartment.
  • On December 8, 2015, a white man met with Mr. Nezaj to inquire about an apartment to rent. Nezaj told him about an available one bedroom apartment at his building located at 2023 Burr Avenue in Pelham Bay.  Mr. Nezaj arranged to have his son, Lucky, meet the tester at the building.  Lucky showed the white tester the newly renovated one-bedroom apartment as well as a vacant two-bedroom apartment.  On December 15, an African American man spoke with Mr. Nezaj and inquired about apartments for rent.  Mr. Nezaj told him that he did not have any vacancies at the Muliner Avenue building and he would not have any apartments available until January.  When the tester specifically asked if any two-bedroom apartments were available for rent, Mr. Nezaj said he only had a studio for rent.  The tester pressed further and asked if he had other buildings that might have an apartment coming available, Mr. Nezaj replied that he did not and added that not too many two-bedrooms come available.   The next day, another white man met with Mr. Nezaj and inquired about a two-bedroom apartment for rent.  Mr. Nezaj told him about the two-bedroom apartment in Pelham Bay and arranged to have his son, Lucky, drive the tester to the building to view the apartment.  Lucky encouraged the white tester to apply for the apartment and stated that his father had “been in real estate for over 50 years.”  Lucky stressed the building was “family owned and run” and that his father “goes off of hunches” when deciding whether to rent to someone.

Landlord Also Linked to Source of Income Discrimination

While the testing investigation was in progress, the FHJC was also attempting to assist Sandra, an African American woman with a NYC Living in Communities (LINC) rental subsidy, to locate suitable housing within her rent range.  On July 22, 2015, the FHJC instructed a white tester to call a telephone number in response to a rental advertisement for a studio apartment that was listed for $1200 on Wilkinson Avenue in Pelham Bay.  At the time, the FHJC was unaware that the selected advertisement was for a property owned by the defendants.  The white woman called to inquire about the apartment and spoke with Mr. Nezaj who identified himself as the owner.  Mr. Nezaj confirmed that the apartment was available and asked her “Are you a working person?”  She said that she was working.  On the same day, an African American woman called to inquire about the same apartment.  Mr. Nezaj confirmed that the apartment was still available.  When the tester asked if the landlord would accept LINC vouchers, Mr. Nezaj answered “No Ma’am.” Then Mr. Nezaj indicated the rent for the apartment was $1300.  On July 24, Sandra called in response to the same advertisement.  After informing him that she had a LINC rental subsidy, Mr. Nezaj stated “I do not deal with programs ma’am. I just…I cannot deal with programs…there is so much red tape.  These people, any program people, usually, they drive you crazy…I’m not in situation that I want to be…in same position, that they can play around and drive me crazy.  I don’t need that.  At my age, I don’t need that.”

In December 2015, FHJC testers were informed about the defendants’ policy of not renting to people with rental subsidies.  On December 8, 2015, Mr. Nezaj told a white tester that, in order to rent one of his apartments, a person had to be working and that he did not rent to people who “come with programs.”  On December 16, Mr. Nezaj asked a white tester if he was on any “programs” like “Section 8, welfare, or SSI” and whether he and his wife worked.  Mr. Nezaj told the tester that every tenant in the building works.   Mr. Nezaj’s son, Lucky, told the same tester that the tenants in the Burr Avenue building include detectives and teachers.  Lucky then said “I don’t have no programs, you know.  I don’t accept none at all.  It’s ran pretty tight, you know.  All our buildings are ran tight.”

Discriminatory Housing Practices Reinforce Segregation

The rental units that were suggested to white testers and testers without rental subsidies were all located in the Bronx neighborhoods of Morris Park and Pelham Bay.  According to American Community Survey data (U.S. Census), African American renters comprise less than 2% of all renter occupied units in the areas where the rental buildings are located Morris Park and Pelham Bay.  African American renters constitute 26% of all renter-occupied housing in the Bronx and 17% in New York City.

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated “Unlawfully restricting access to affordable rental housing on the basis of race and source of income limits the housing choices available to African Americans and to some of the most vulnerable populations in this community.”  Freiberg added, “These deplorable practices perpetuate residential racial segregation, concentrate poverty, and buttress the architecture of inequality in the New York City region.”

The plaintiffs are seeking damages and injunctive relief that would bring the defendants into compliance with fair housing laws and ensure non-discrimination in the future.  Plaintiff Sandra is represented by Kevin M. Cremin and Shanila Ali of MFY Legal Services.   Plaintiff FHJC and three African American testers are represented by Diane L. Houk of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP.