Opening Acts Newsletter: June 1, 2012

Accessible Housing: A Civil Right 

U.S. Attorney’s Office Enforces Fair Housing Act Accessibility Requirements

In 2006, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) conducted testing investigations at over a dozen newly constructed Manhattan apartment buildings to determine whether they were being designed and constructed in compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act. The results of these investigations were referred to the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Since these referrals were made, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has announced the filing of several lawsuits and settlements.

On May 25, 2012, U.S Attorney Preet Bharara filed a lawsuit against the developers, architects, and owners of a 259-unit apartment building, called Hudson Crossing, located at 400 West 37th Street in Manhattan. In the complaint, the United States alleged that the building was designed and constructed with inaccessible features including interior doorways that are too narrow for people using wheelchairs; excessively high thresholds; insufficient clear floor spaces in kitchens, bathrooms, and trash rooms to accommodate wheelchairs; common area doors that are inoperable for people with certain disabilities; and a leasing office that is inaccessible for the visually impaired and for people who use wheelchairs. The defendants are 475 Ninth Ave. Associates, Thomas O’Hara Architects, The Dermot Company, and EQR-Hudson Crossing, LLC.

The U.S. Attorney announced on May 30, 2012 that a settlement was reached in this case. The consent decree requires defendants to remove all obstacles to accessibility at Hudson Crossing. They must also retrofit three apartments at Hudson Crossing to include features that go above and beyond the standard of basic accessibility required under the Fair Housing Act. Further, the defendants must train their employees on the requirements of the Fair Housing Act and construct any new apartment buildings in compliance with the law. Finally, the Dermot Company is required to dedicate $115,000 to compensate people who have been harmed by the Fair Housing Act violations at Hudson Crossing and pay a $20,000 civil penalty to the United States.

FHJC’s Executive Director Fred Freiberg commented, “Accessible housing is a civil right and we commend the efforts of the U.S. Attorney to seek full compliance with the design and construction requirements in the Fair Housing Act.”

$50,000 Settlement in Brooklyn Rental Discrimination Case

In 2007, Vanessa Lee, an African American woman who was looking for an apartment to rent in Brooklyn, called Bais Seller Realty & Construction in Brooklyn, New York in response to a rental advertisement. Allegedly, when Ms. Lee called the company she was asked if she was Jewish, and after she said that she was not, was told that the apartment was not available for her to rent. Ms. Lee also alleged that when she subsequently went to Bais, she was informed that no one was available to show her apartments. Several hours after Ms. Lee’s visit, the FHJC sent a white female tester to the same office and she was told about and shown available apartments. FHJC also sent four matched pairs of African American and white testers to Bais to inquire about apartments for rent. On each occasion, the African American tester was not provided service while the white tester who visited the same office on the same day was informed about and/or shown available apartments. On June 26, 2008, a federal lawsuit was filed alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, and religion in violation of fair housing laws.

On May 14, 2012, a settlement was reached in the case that provides for a monetary recovery of $50,000 for the plaintiff along with injunctive relief including fair housing training, adoption of fair housing policies, recordkeeping, and monitoring requirements to ensure compliance with fair housing laws. Ms. Lee is represented by O. Andrew Wilson and Diane L. Houk with the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.