Opening Acts Newsletter: April 21, 2014

Durst Organization Sued for Failing to Build Accessible Housing

Accessibility Cases in NYC Stem from FHJC Testing Investigations

On April 16, 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 architectural firm, both based in New York City, engaged in a pattern and practice of developing housing that is inaccessible to persons with disabilities. The suit alleges that the The Durst Organization, Inc., its subsidiaries and affiliates,The Helena Associates, LLC, and FXFOWLE Architects, P.C., designed and constructed The Helena, a 595-unit rental building in Manhattan, in violation of the accessibility requirements of the federal Fair Housing Act.

In a news release, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “This is now the eighth lawsuit we have filed in recent years to address the failure of real estate developers in New York City to comply with the law.” Bharara added “Developers and architects who show an unwillingness to design and construct housing that complies with the law can no longer seek to evade the consequences of their actions.”

In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) conducted undercover testing investigations of newly constructed rental developments in Manhattan, including The Helena, and found evidence of widespread non-compliance with federal accessibility requirements. The FHJC turned over the evidence to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated “Vigorous enforcement of fair housing laws may be the only way to change a culture of indifference that exists among real estate developers who continue to design and construct housing that is not accessible to persons with disabilities.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) alleges that The Helena contains inaccessible conditions, including excessively high thresholds that interfere with accessible routes in the common areas and within individual units; kitchens and bathrooms that lack sufficient space for maneuvering by people using wheelchairs; bedroom, bathroom, terrace, and closet doors that are not sufficiently wide; and electrical outlets and mailboxes that are not fully usable by people using wheelchairs.

The suit alleges that an injunction is necessary to ensure that the defendants’ discriminatory practices are not repeated in other rental properties. DOJ is asking the court to require that the developer retrofit the inaccessible conditions to make them accessible. The suit also seeks damages for persons who have been harmed by the defendants’ unlawful practices along with a civil penalty to vindicate the public interest. 

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