A building in Borough Park, Brooklyn, where, a lawsuit says, black and white prospective tenants were treated differently. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
When the Trump administration told cities in early 2018 they no longer had to develop plans ordered by the Obama White House to combat housing segregation, New York City chose to forge ahead anyway.
But after nearly two years of meetings involving 150 experts and some 60 focus groups of residents in all five boroughs, the Where We Live NYC project has yet to see the light of day — even as investigations bring public attention to evidence of real estate broker and landlord bias.
Last month, the Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit that tests for discrimination, sued a Brooklyn landlord it alleges “consistently quoted” higher rents for black testers applying for apartments in two midsize Borough Park buildings than for white testers.
The petition, filed in Brooklyn federal court, also claims that a white tester was told an apartment was available in a building where two days earlier a black tester was told there were no vacancies.
The suit follows a massive Newsday investigation that used undercover testers of different races to seek homes to buy on Long Island and found statistical evidence that brokers often steered black, Latino and Asian homebuyers to different communities than white buyers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a state investigation following up on Newsday’s findings.
The Fair Housing Justice Center helped advise the Long Island probe and has filed a steady stream of bias lawsuits in New York City, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the proceeds of legal settlements.
“Our goal is to illuminate the discrimination and make sure that fair housing laws already in place are being enforced to their fullest extent,” said Fair Housing Justice Center Executive Director Fred Freiberg.
Targeting ‘Root Causes’
The Fair Housing Justice Center is one of two HUD-funded discrimination testing groups based in New York City. The federal agency has financed approximately 580 tests in the New York region this year, according to Olga Álvarez, a spokesperson for HUD. The City Commission on Human Rights conducts its own housing-bias tests as well.
Since 1968, federal law has prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, sex, religion and other factors. New York laws also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, use of housing vouchers and more.
Fair Housing Justice Center, a modest Long Island City-based nonprofit, tackles the cause case by case.
Meanwhile, Where We Live NYC, the citywide “comprehensive fair housing planning process to study, understand, and address patterns of residential segregation” announced by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development in March 2018, has nearly vanished from view.
Speaking about Where We Live NYC at the New York Housing Conference on Wednesday, HPD Deputy Commissioner Leila Bozorg described the objective as “developing a set of goals and strategies that help us address some of the root causes” of segregation and discrimination.
HPD originally scheduled the final draft of the report for release in fall 2019 and created a kit that neighborhood partners, such as community-based organizations, could use to elicit input from local residents at scores of scheduled sessions.
A “Where We Live Summit” in June at the Museum of the City of New York gathered nonprofit and government leaders to dive into the research and results.
Since then, aside from a few pop-up events seeking the views of New Yorkers just passing by, the project has gone silent. Matthew Creegan, a spokesperson for HPD, said a draft proposal will be published before the end of the year.
“We’re super excited for the Where We Live report to be released,” said Betsy McLean, executive director of Hester Street Collaborative, a group enlisted by HPD to help organize community meetings, as she accepted an award for their work at the conference where Bozorg spoke.
‘I Don’t Like, I Don’t Give Apartment’
Meanwhile, the painstaking work of identifying bias block-by-block continues. The Fair Housing Justice Center targets its investigations to neighborhoods with few nonwhite residents compared to the volume of the housing stock.
The group selected the Borough Park area for testing because it has “lots of housing but not a lot of African Americans,” Freiberg told THE CITY. Just 3% of residents of Community District 10 are black, according to 2017 Census estimates, compared to 30% in Brooklyn overall.
The center sent white and black testers to the Borough Park buildings over the course of six years before filing its latest lawsuit. In 2013 and again in 2017, according to the complaint, The Fair Housing Justice Center enlisted white testers to inquire about apartments in the buildings at 1125 and 1137 63rd Street.
Then in 2017 and again in 2019, it sent pairs of white and black testers to the same buildings to see if the landlord would discriminate against either of them on the basis of race.
As plaintiffs with the Fair Housing Justice Center, four black testers — John-Martin Green, Justin Carter, Jeanine Abraham, and Michael Leonard — allege that they were quoted rents $50 to $150 more per month than white applicants were.
The suit claims that Kostas Paxis and his parents Mary and Paul, who own the Borough Park properties, acted in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, as well as city and state laws.
According to the complaint, the Paxises quoted white testers one rent, only to give black applicants a different, higher price often just hours later, the suit alleges. They also expressed a preference for white applicants, according to the complaint.
The conversations were recorded without the defendants’ knowledge, as is permitted by law in New York.
“You look nice. Because always, believe me, when they come for rent, if I saw [sic] I don’t like, I don’t give the apartment,” Mary Paxis told one white tester in a recorded conversation from May 2017. “Because I want to be — I have good tenants.”
A woman claiming to be Kostas Paxis told THE CITY in a phone call that she had no knowledge of a lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the Paxises’ behavior subjected the black testers “to debasement and humiliation” and conveyed “that they are, in the eye of the Buildings’ owners … lesser citizens that their white counterparts.”
“It furthers racial segregation in housing in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and throughout New York City,” the complaint reads. “It must end.”
This story was originally published on [Decemeber 5, 2019] by THE CITY.”