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Opening Acts Newsletter: November 24, 2014

Housing Discrimination Alleged in Astoria, Queens 

FHJC Testing Investigation Uncovers Racial Bias in Rental Practices

On November 24, 2014, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC), three African American testers, and a white renter who used the services of a real estate firm to locate an apartment filed a lawsuit in federal District Court (EDNY) alleging that a realty firm and owners of rental properties in Astoria, Queens discriminate against African American renters.  The lawsuit names, as defendants, Horizon Realty of New York, LLC., along with licensed real estate brokers Michael Demkiw and Walter Lizzul, and Dimitrios Thomas, an agent for a landlord in Astoria.

The complaint alleges that in August, 2013, Allison Brown, a white woman, contacted Horizon Realty and used the services of Mr. Lizzul to locate an apartment in Astoria Queens.  After moving into her apartment, Ms. Brown learned that her landlord had previously rejected an African American family for the same apartment and had instructed Mr. Lizzul not to bring “those types” of people to the building.  Ms. Brown, who wanted to reside in a community that was open and racially diverse, contacted the FHJC to report the alleged discriminatory conduct.

In response to the information provided by Ms. Brown, the FHJC commenced a testing investigation in which teams of comparably qualified African American and white testers were deployed to Horizon Realty to inquire about available apartments.  After a two month investigation, the FHJC corroborated the allegation and found that Mr. Lizzul was refusing to show many available rental units to African American renters.  African American testers were discouraged, not informed about many available apartments, and/or only steered to an apartment that was in serious disrepair.  In contrast, the same agent told white testers and showed them multiple available apartments, which the agent described as “spectacular,” “top of the list,” “the best one of the bunch,” and “top notch.”

On one test, Mr. Lizzul informed a white male tester posing as part of a married household that he would need to meet the tester’s wife before he could show them any available apartments.  When the tester stated that his wife was not available that day, the agent suggested there was a “loophole” and asked if the tester could show him a picture of his wife.  The tester produced a picture of a white woman on his iPhone and then the agent agreed to take the tester out to view multiple apartments.

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated, “The discriminatory conduct detailed in the complaint not only restricts the housing choices available to African American renters, but also reinforces residential segregation by manipulating the racial make-up of entire rental buildings and neighborhoods.”  Freiberg added, “This lawsuit should send two clear messages. First, the possession of a real estate license from the State of New York does not constitute a license to discriminate and, second, real estate agents and landlords who believe that they can, with impunity, engage in such insidious racial discrimination do so at their own financial peril.”

The lawsuit seeks damages and injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure future compliance with fair housing laws. The plaintiffs are represented by Mariann Meier Wang and Alice G. Reiter with the law firm of Cuti Hecker Wang LLP.

FHJC Staff News

In October, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) welcomed two new full-time employees.

Elizabeth Gorman was hired as FHJC’s new Office Manager.  Prior to joining the FHJC, Ms. Gorman enjoyed a career in theater management, both on the production and administrative side.  She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Boston University and is bi-lingual in English and Spanish.  Ms. Gorman fills the position formerly held by Vanessa Gonzalez, who provided seven years of outstanding service to the FHJC. Everyone at the FHJC wishes Vanessa all the best as she pursues a new career in the culinary arts.

Michael Nixon joined the FHJC staff as the new Legal and Policy Coordinator.  Mr. Nixon has a law degree from the John Marshall Law School (JMLS) in Chicago, Illinois and a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. During law school, Mr. Nixon worked as a Civil Rights Law Clerk at the JMLS Fair Housing Legal Clinic.

Finally, congratulations to Lizette Carrión, who was promoted to the new position of Deputy Director at the FHJC.  Ms. Carrión began working as a tester for the FHJC eventually became the Senior Investigative Coordinator, supervising complex systemic testing investigations, including many that resulted in state and federal fair housing cases.  She has also developed and implemented effective testing protocols for investigating lender practices.  Her promotion is a tribute to her dedication and the many contributions she has made to the FHJC over the years.

FHJC Board President Gene Capello commented, “Many people may not realize that the FHJC, which serves the most populated region of any private fair housing organization in the nation, is staffed by a team of only seven professionals.  I know I speak for the entire FHJC Board of Directors when I say that FHJC’s accomplishments to date are a result of the extraordinary dedication, resourcefulness, and skill of our staff.”