Opening Acts Newsletter: December 5, 2012

African Americans Unwelcome at Queens Apartment Building

On December 5, 2012, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) and three African American testers filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the owner and manager of a 107-unit apartment building located in Sunnyside, Queens discriminate against African American renters. The lawsuit is based on the results of a testing investigation completed by the FHJC earlier this year. The building owner, NASA Real Estate Corporation, and the building superintendent, Irfan Bekdemir, were named as defendants in the case.

The complaint alleges that African American and white testers consistently received different information, treatment, and service. During the investigation, white testers were told about and shown available apartments. The building super encouraged white testers to rent apartments and even lowered the rents. In stark contrast, the same agent lied to all of the African American testers about available apartments and prevented them from viewing available apartments. The agent further discouraged African American testers by providing untruthful or misleading information and quoting higher rents.

In addition, the building super made numerous statements to the white testers about his rental practices: “This building is choice people, not everybody” and that he would lower the rent from $1500 to $1400 for “nice people, nice family.” The building super told another white tester, “I chose the people…you look like nice people, that’s why I show you.” The same agent did not make these comments to any of the African American testers.

According to the 2010 Census, African American renter households reside in fewer than 2% of all renter occupied housing units in this area of Sunnyside, Queens. In contrast, African American renters comprise 18% of all renter households in Queens and 27% of all renter households in New York City.

Over the past few years, FHJC systemic testing investigations have uncovered discriminatory practices by housing providers in New York City and surrounding suburban areas. According to FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg, “Testing is the only investigative tool capable of comparing and documenting how similarly qualified renters of different races are being treated in the housing market. Renters are often unaware that discrimination is occurring. If housing discrimination is not detected, it is not reported. Yet, these odious practices restrict housing choice and perpetuate residential segregation.” This testing investigation was funded by a Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) grant that was awarded to the FHJC by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

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 FHJC and the three testers are represented by Elizabeth S. Saylor, Diane L. Houk, and Vasudha Talla with the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.

Court Finds FHJC Testing Evidence to be “Smoking Gun”

On December 3, 2012, Federal District Court Judge Samuel Conti issued a decision finding that Manhattan Apartments, New York City’s second largest real estate broker for rentals, and Abba Realty Associates, a company with offices in Brooklyn and the Bronx, violated the New York City Human Rights Law by discriminating against Plaintiff Keith Short and others on the basis of source of income. The decision follows a one week trial held in October in which the FHJC and Mr. Short presented evidence that these two real estate companies were discriminating against renters based on source of

income. Keith Short is a person living with AIDS who has a housing subsidy from New York City’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA).

In response to Mr. Short’s complaint of housing discrimination, the FHJC conducted a four-month testing investigation into the allegations. The Court found the testimony of the testers corroborated the conduct complained about by Mr. Short. In referring to discriminatory comments made by agents and captured on the audio recordings of the tests, the Court found that there was “nothing equivocal or ambiguous about these statements.” In discussing Plaintiff’s claims that defendants engaged in source of income discrimination, the Court found that the “evidence is not just a thick cloud of smoke, it is a smoking gun.”

“The evidence clearly shows that Manhattan Apartments, at the behest of landlords, refused to assist Mr. Short because he was on HASA,” Judge Conti wrote. The Court found that Abba similarly “refused to show HASA clients certain apartments because those apartments were not available to persons with HASA or other government rental subsidies.” Both defendants “weeded out the HASA clients before they could submitanapplication”accordingtotheopinion. Moreover,asJudgeContiobserved,discriminationinthis context is particularly deleterious: “Housing is especially important for persons with symptomatic AIDS because of their compromised immune systems, leaving them susceptible to a variety of other illnesses for people with AIDS, ‘housing is healthcare.”

In 2008, the City of New York added “source of income” which includes housing subsidies as a protected characteristic under the local Human Rights Law. This is the first decision rendered under New York City’s source of income law on behalf of a HASA client. “This decision reveals that notwithstanding the law, companies continue blatantly to discriminate against indigent, disabled individuals who rely on government subsidies to pay their rents,” said Armen H. Merjian, Senior Staff Attorney at Housing Works, co-counsel in the case Diane L. Houk of Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP (ECBA).

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg said, “The unmistakable message emanating from decision for housing providers is that source of income discrimination will not be tolerated. HASA rental subsidies provide a vital safety net for New Yorkers who are living with AIDS and who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The FHJC will continue to dismantle barriers to housing choice so that vulnerable populations with rental subsidies, including people with disabilities, need not endure the insult, expense, and indignity of discrimination.”

Judge Conti awarded Mr. Short and the FHJC damages and issued an injunction for three years that prohibits the defendants from discriminating on the basis of a lawful source of income; requires the defendants to adopt and post a non-discrimination policy; and implement mandatory training on New Yor City’s Human Rights Law.