Opening Acts Newsletter: April 25, 2013

FHJC Uncovers Separate and Unequal Track at LeFrak

On April 25, 2013, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) and a woman living with AIDS who applied to rent an apartment at the 5000-unit LeFrak City complex filed a lawsuit in federal district court (S.D.N.Y.) alleging that one of the nation’s largest landlords discriminates on the basis of disability and source of income.

After receiving a complaint from a client, Housing Works, Inc. contacted the FHJC to report that its client had been denied an apartment at LeFrak City, home to roughly 15,000 people in Queens, because she intended to pay her rent with a subsidy from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA). In response, the FHJC deployed undercover “testers” to investigate the complaint. The investigation yielded evidence of systemic discrimination based on source of income and disability at LeFrak City and all other rental buildings operated by the defendants in New York City.

The lawsuit alleges that the LeFrak Organization and its subsidiary rental management company, Estate NY Real Estate Services LLC, treat applicants with rental assistance of any kind, including persons with a HASA housing subsidy, differently and less favorably from applicants with income from employment. For example, the complaint alleges that applicants who are employed are allowed to go directly to a convenient on-site leasing office at LeFrak City, meet with a leasing agent, obtain floor plans, and view available apartments prior to having any income verified or completing a rental application. In sharp contrast, applicants with any type of rental assistance, including persons with a HASA rental subsidy, are required to go to a separate off-site leasing office, speak with employees behind a glass window, complete a rental application, submit to a credit and criminal background check, and provide other documentation just to be placed on a waiting list and before any information will be provided about apartments for rent or available apartments will be shown. The lawsuit alleges this differential treatment constitutes intentional source of income discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law.

The complaint further alleges that the LeFrak policy of requiring written verification of the maximum rent amount that a government program will pay discriminates against disabled persons living with AIDS who are using a HASA housing subsidy. According to the lawsuit, a LeFrak agent acknowledged to a tester that she knew HASA would not provide such written documentation and that without it her office would not accept an application or assist a HASA client to find housing operated by the defendants. As stated in the lawsuit, this policy makes housing unavailable to all persons who have a HASA rental subsidy, 100% of whom are disabled and thus, constitutes illegal disability discrimination under both the federal Fair Housing Act and the New York City Human Rights Law.

The LeFrak Organization and its affiliates are one of the largest holders of real estate in the United States with buildings in New York, California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Lefrak and its related entities control over 200 apartment buildings in New York and New Jersey.

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure compliance with fair housing laws, damages, and attorney’s fees. The plaintiffs are represented by the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP and Housing Works, Inc.

Commenting on the lawsuit, Armen H. Merjian, Senior Staff Attorney at Housing Works stated, “Discrimination in housing is not merely odious, and offensive, but it is life-threatening for thousands of indigent New Yorkers living with AIDS. With affordable housing increasingly hard to come by in this city, it is critical that we ensure that apartments be made available to all, regardless of disability or source of income.”

Fred Freiberg, FHJC Executive Director added, “Operating a dual and discriminatory rental application process that imposes additional hurdles to rent apartments for people with rental subsidies is source of income discrimination. Enforcing a requirement that effectively makes housing unavailable to people living with HIV/AIDS who have a HASA rental subsidy is discrimination based on disability.” Freiberg added, “For tens of thousands of people in New York City who are living with symptomatic HIV or AIDS and using a HASA rental subsidy, having a decent, stable, and sanitary place to call home is critical to health and well-being. The action we take today is intended to dismantle a discriminatory system, repair the harm caused by these practices, and ensure that housing opportunities are available on an equal basis to all renters with public subsidies and to New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.”