Opening Acts Newsletter: April 29,2013

FHJC Investigation Exposes Racial Bias at Bay Ridge Apartment Building

April 29, 2013 The Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) and three African American testers filed a lawsuit in federal district court (E.D.N.Y.) alleging that the owners and managers of an apartment building in Brooklyn discriminate against African American renters.

This case resulted from an undercover testing investigation conducted in 2012 by the FHJC in which several teams of comparably qualified African American and white testers, posing as prospective renters, inquired about apartments at a 59-unit rental building in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. The lawsuit names Merz Realty Co.; its principals, Hal Shapiro and Barry Shapiro; and agents Ula Zatorski and Zdislaw Zatorski as defendants. According to the lawsuit, Ms. Zatorski, the building super at 7502 Ridge Blvd., repeatedly informed African American testers that either no apartments were available or that apartments would not be available for months, while white testers were told about and shown available apartments.  

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure future compliance with fair housing laws as well as damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. The plaintiffs are represented by Eric Hecker and Mariann Meier Wang with the law firm of Cuti Hecker Wang, LLP.

“The testing makes clear that African Americans were routinely turned away or treated worse than their white counterparts,” Mariann Wang stated. She added, “Such behavior propagates segregation, which simply cannot be tolerated.”  

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg commented, “The intentionally deceptive and racially discriminatory practices documented by our investigation should offend the sensibilities of all New Yorkers. Without pro-active testing by the FHJC, these deplorable practices would go undetected and unreported. Legal action is necessary to ensure that this affordable rental housing becomes equally available to African American renters. For fair housing laws to have meaning, they must be vigorously enforced.”    

Lawsuit and Settlement Aimed at Making a Manhattan Rental Building Accessible

U.S. Attorney Case Stems from FHJC Testing Investigation

On April 25, 2013, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the filing of a federal lawsuit alleging that architects and developers of a 650-unit apartment building at 2 Gold Street in Manhattan failed to design and construct the housing so that it would be accessible to persons with disabilities. The suit alleges that Avinash K. Malhotra Architects, Avinash K. Malhotra, TF Cornerstone Inc., TF Cornerstone Properties LLC, and 2 Gold LLC violated provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act which require that new multi-family housing complexes include certain features that are accessible to persons with disabilities.

In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) conducted a testing investigation at over a dozen newly constructed rental buildings in Manhattan and found widespread non-compliance with federal fair housing accessibility requirements. The results of this investigation were referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The U.S. Attorney’s Office often relies on testers to determine whether property owners are engaging in discrimination on the basis of race, disability, or other protected characteristics, and files lawsuits based on the results of FHJC testing.

In commenting on the latest case, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “We will not allow architects and developers to cut corners at the expense of people with disabilities in order to increase their profits, or for any reason. This suit represents our Office’s continued commitment to holding accountable those who fail to design and construct accessible housing in accordance with federal law, and to seeking settlements that provide legally required accommodations for individuals with disabilities and compensation for those who have been deprived of fair housing.”

According to the allegations contained in the lawsuit, 2 Gold Street was designed and constructed with multiple inaccessible features, including insufficient space in bathrooms and kitchens for people in wheelchairs; high thresholds interfering with accessible routes; sinks, ranges, outlets, and mailboxes not fully usable by people with disabilities who use wheelchairs; and protruding objects not detectable by canes used by people with visual impairments.

The United States simultaneously announced a settlement with the developer defendants, TF Cornerstone Inc., TF Cornerstone Properties LLC, and 2 Gold LLC. The consent decree, approved by U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson, requires that the developers retrofit inaccessible features throughout the property; train employees on the requirements of the Fair Housing Act; pay a $35,000 civil penalty to the United States; and dedicate up to $300,000 to compensate people who have been harmed by the Fair Housing Act violations at 2 Gold Street.

Of the design and construction cases referred to the U.S. Attorney by the FHJC, this is the fifth case that has been filed and resolved. To date, these five cases have impacted more than 3,600 rental units in New York City, resulted in extensive retrofits, compensated victims, and led to a potential monetary recovery in excess of $3.3 million. FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated, “These outcomes increase the supply of housing opportunities that are open, accessible, and available to persons with disabilities. When fair housing organizations and government agencies work in a coordinated and cooperative manner to enforce fair housing laws, significant changes in housing market policies and practices can be achieved.”  

The suit against 2 Gold Street’s architects is still pending. This case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carina H. Schoenberger, Emily E. Daughtry, and Li Yu in the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Under the consent decree for 2 Gold Street, a person may be entitled to receive monetary compensation if he or she was:

  • Discouraged from living at 2 Gold Street because of a lack of accessible features;
  • Limited in the full use or enjoyment of an apartment or amenity at 2 Gold Street due to a lack of  accessible features;
  • Financially affected by having an apartment at 2 Gold Street made more accessible to persons with disabilities;
  • Prevented from having visitors because of a lack of accessible features at 2 Gold Street; or
  • Otherwise injured by the lack of accessible features or discriminated against on the basis of disability at 2 Gold Street.

People who may be entitled to compensation should file a claim by contacting the Civil Rights Complaint Line at (212) 637-2987 (a TDD line is available at (212) 637-0039), using the Civil Rights Complaint Form available on the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s website, www.usdoj.gov/usao.nyc, or by sending a written claim to:

         U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York

         Attn: Chief, Civil Rights Unit

         86 Chambers Street, 3rd Floor

         New York, New York, 10007