Brooklyn tenants file suit against landlords for targeting black renters

April 15, 2014 Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A number of residents of the Homewood Gardens Estates, a group of apartment buildings in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, have banded together and filed a federal lawsuit alleging that their Brooklyn landlords have engaged in wrongful acts of race discrimination.

The tenants filed a claim in Brooklyn federal court on Monday. The claim contends that their landlords have “aggressively harassed and targeted black tenants who lived in the buildings in an effort to get them to move so that their apartments can be rented primarily to white tenants.”

The primary organizational plaintiffs in the suit are the Flatbush Development Corporation (FDC) and the Flatbush Tenants Coalition (FTC), organizations focused on economic development and housing in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatbush, East Flatbush and South Crown Heights. The suit also includes eleven individual tenants, each of whom has been a resident of the Homewood Gardens Estates for at least 5years.

The suit alleges that the buildings’ landlords purchased the property with the intent of displacing its black tenants. According to court documents, defendants Yeshaya Wasserman and Homewood Garden Estates LLC purchased the property in 2009 and, the suit alleges, commenced a “campaign of harassment immediately upon buying the buildings.”

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Prior to the defendants’ purchase of the property, most—if not all—of the buildings’ tenants were black. Since taking ownership of the buildings, the suit argues, the defendants have evicted or induced black tenants to move out of the building using tactics such as refusing to make needed repairs and declining to cash rent checks. One resident stated that defendant Wasserman offered her “$4,000 to waive her right to repairs and move out of her long-term apartment.” This defendant has been a tenant for over 10 years. In another instance, a tenant noted in court document, after making repeated repair requests, Wasserman informed her “that if she did not like the conditions [of the building], she should move out.”

The same treatment, the suit argues, is not given to white tenants. “[The] defendants have compelled black tenants to live in substandard and uninhabitable conditions, while providing white tenants with habitable apartments,” the suit alleges.

Federal law is clear on the issue of housing discrimination on the basis of race. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) explicitly prohibits discrimination in the sale or renting of housing. Furthermore, New York State and New York City civil rights laws bar discriminatory practices, specifically making it unlawful to “discriminate against any person’s actual or perceived race…in the terms, and conditions or privileges of the sale, rental, or lease of any such housing accommodations…or in the furnishing or facilities or services in connection [to such housing accommodations].”

If the allegations made against the defendants prove to be true, federal and state penalties will likely be imposed.

While the suit notes that of the 14 of the 15 new tenants that have recently moved into the building are either white or of Asian heritage, it is not clear if the ethnic background of the new tenants is a mere consequence of a changing Brooklyn neighborhood or the result of discriminatory practices on the part of the landlords.

The plaintiffs, represented by South Brooklyn Legal Services (a sector of Legal Services NYC) gathered at St. Gabriel’s Church on Hawthorne Street Tuesday morning to announce the filing of the suit and to express their outrage. Joined by State Assembly Member Karim Camara (D-Brooklyn) and New York City Councilman Mathieu Eugene (D-Brooklyn), the tenants gave personal accounts of alleged discrimination. “I’ve lived at Homewood Gardens for eight years with my mother and my son,” said Mikela Atherton, daughter of one of the plaintiffs. “There is no nice way to say what’s happening here:Iit is harassment & discrimination. “The blatant disregard for the well­-being of residents will not be tolerated,” added Camara. 

The plaintiffs’ primary attorney spoke of the history of the tenants’ charges and how their attempts to remedy the situation forced them to file suit in federal court. “After complaints in state court failed to stop the landlord’s practices, the tenants had no other choice but to use the civil rights laws to put an end to discriminatory treatment they have experienced, and to prevent the continuing displacement of black tenants from the neighborhood in which they have lived for decades,” Pavita Krishnaswamy of South Brooklyn Legal Services stated.

Homewood Gardens Estates says owner Yeshaya Wasserman won’t be back in the office to respond to questions about the lawsuit until Wednesday.

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