Lawsuit Alleges Discrimination at Senior Residences
New York, NY – On May 29, 2013, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) filed a lawsuit in federal court (S.D.N.Y.) alleging that the owners and managers of five independent senior living residences with more than 600 apartments discriminate on the basis of disability, religion, and race. The FHJC alleges that the Esplanade Residences located in Staten Island, Manhattan, Westchester County, and Rockland County maintain policies and engage in practices that violate local, state, and federal fair housing laws. Named as defendants are Esplanade Venture Partnership; Esplanade of White Plains Venture Partnership; Palisades Gardens Group, LLC; Esplanade Chestnut, LLC; and Esplanade Staten Island, LLC.
In September 2012, the FHJC received a complaint based on a letter to the editor which appeared in the Staten Island Advance (www.SILive.com). The letter accused the Staten Island Esplanade of refusing to rent to persons who use wheelchairs. Rather than deny the allegation, an agent for the Esplanade wrote: “The Esplanade is a community catering to active independent senior residents. The Esplanade is not an assisted living facility. As such, our residents are ambulatory and do not require the use of wheelchairs.”
In response to this complaint, the FHJC commenced an undercover testing investigation and sent matched pairs of testers to Esplanade residences over four months. At each of the five locations, one tester inquired about housing for an elderly relative with disabilities who uses a wheelchair and the other tester inquired about housing for a non-disabled elderly relative.
Some examples of the alleged discriminatory conduct cited in the complaint include:
• The Manhattan Esplanade refuses to rent to prospective residents who use wheelchairs. An agent for the Manhattan Esplanade told a tester “you have to come in vertical.” The same agent explained that if existing residents start using a wheelchair, “We don’t even allow wheelchairs in the dining room.” According to the agent, residents who use wheelchairs have to eat in a separate dining room with other wheelchair users and their aides. When the tester asked why people who use wheelchairs need to be separated, the agent stated because “it depresses the elderly” to see people using wheelchairs.
• At the Esplanade at Palisades, an agent told a tester that “power” wheelchairs are not allowed.
• At the White Plains Esplanade, when a tester told an agent that his relative used a manual wheelchair, the agent stated that would be acceptable as long as she was “self-propelled.”
• At the Esplanade at Chestnut Ridge, an agent stated that, even though there was an elevator to the second floor, wheelchair users are only allowed to rent apartments on the first floor and that existing residents were given a preference for first floor apartments. The agent admitted that with these policies, more apartments would be available to the tester’s relative if she did not use a wheelchair. The agent later explained that when “independent” seniors come into the residence and see people using wheelchairs or walkers, they are immediately “put off.”
• At the Esplanade Staten Island, a tester was informed that motorized wheelchairs are not allowed.
• To rent at any of the Esplanade residences, applicants are subjected to intrusive and discriminatory medical inquiries and required to obtain a physician’s report and disclose any mental or physical disabilities as part of the rental application process.
• At several Esplanade residences, agents asked testers about their relative’s religion. All Esplanade residences use an application form that requests the applicant’s religion and whether an applicant is “practicing.” In a newspaper article, an Esplanade employee referred to life at the residences as “the Jewish hotel experience.”
• Esplanade brochures and websites use only white human models to depict residents.
According to national projections by the U.S. Census, the population age 65 and older is expected to more than double between 2012 and 2060, from 43.1 million to 92 million. FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg, stated, “In anticipation of this dramatic demographic change, the FHJC will work to ensure that housing opportunities are available to older persons on a non-discriminatory basis.” Freiberg issued a warning to other operators of senior housing and independent living residences. “There should be no confusion. Fair housing rights extend to older persons of all races and religions, as well as to people with disabilities,” Freiberg added.
Funding for the testing investigation conducted by the FHJC was provided under a grant received from the Fair Housing Initiatives Program of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure future compliance with fair housing laws, in addition to damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. The FHJC is represented by Diane L. Houk, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, LLP, and Kevin M. Cremin and Nahid Sorooshyari of MFY Legal Services, Inc.
About FHJC: The mission of the FHJC is to challenge systemic housing discrimination, promote open, accessible, and inclusive communities, and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws. The FHJC assists individuals who encounter illegal housing discrimination by providing counseling on fair housing rights, investigative assistance, and referrals to administrative agencies and cooperating attorneys. Individuals who need assistance with housing discrimination complaints are encouraged to call the FHJC at (212) 400-8201.