Press Release: New Lawsuit Challenges Landlord’s Ban on Renting to Those With Criminal Records

Friday, October 31, 2014

NEW LAWSUIT CHARGES THAT A PRIVATE LANDLORD’S BLANKET BAN ON RENTING APARTMENTS TO PEOPLE WITH CRIMINAL RECORD IS A CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION UNDER THE FAIR HOUSING ACT

Fortune Society’s federal lawsuit accuses Sandcastle Towers Housing Development Fund Corp., Sarasota Gold LLC and Weissman Reality Group LLC in Far Rockaway, Queens of denying housing to otherwise qualified African-Americans and Hispanics

A private landlord’s blanket ban on renting apartments to people with criminal records is a civil rights violation under the Fair Housing Act because such bans disproportionately and overwhelmingly impact African-Americans and Hispanics, according to a new federal lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York.  The case is one of the first to challenge a blanket ban on housing imposed by a private landlord as a civil rights violation.

The legal action brought by the Fortune Society (Fortune) against Sandcastle Towers Housing Development Fund Corp. (HDFC), Sarasota Gold LLC (Sarasota Gold) and Weissman Reality Group LLC (Weissman) is being handled by John Relman, Esq., founder of Relman, Dane & Colfax, a civil rights law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

For almost 50 years, the Fortune Society has been one of the nation’s most respected and successful not-for-profit organizations dedicated to the successful reentry and reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals.

In the complaint, Fortune charges that Defendants Sarasota Gold and HDFC, owners of “The Sand Castle,” a multi-building apartment complex located in Far Rockaway, Queens, and Defendant Weissman, their management company for the complex, maintain a policy of automatically excluding any person with a record of a criminal conviction from renting or living in an apartment regardless of the nature of the conviction, the amount of time that has lapsed since the conviction, evidence of rehabilitation, or any other factor related to whether a specific person poses any threat to safety.  In 2013 and 2014, the Defendants repeatedly refused to permit Fortune to rent apartments for its clients because those clients have criminal histories.

JoAnne Page, President and CEO of the Fortune Society said, “If you have no place to live when you leave prison, what chance do you have to make it?  A blanket ban on housing, like the one imposed by these defendants, fuels a vicious cycle of recidivism and denies deserving individuals a fair chance to become fully contributing member of their communities. From housing to employment, and from unfair policing policies to education, men and women who return home from prison face unthinkable obstacles at almost every turn in the road. With this lawsuit, we have an opportunity to remove one of the biggest obstacles, and to make it clear that blanket bans on housing for the formerly incarcerated are illegal and will not be tolerated.”

Page noted that this type of blanket ban policy has become increasingly common in housing due to the increased accessibility of inexpensive background checks via the Internet.

Civil rights attorney, John Relman, said, “Bans on housing and employment for those re-entering society from prison fall disproportionately and overwhelmingly on African-American and Hispanic men.  When housing providers deny those who have been formerly incarcerated basic rights, they are creating a racial and ethnic caste system.  In effect, they are imposing harsh limitations on where these individuals can live and work.  This serves only to perpetuate poverty, segregation, and dramatically increases the likelihood that they will return to prison.”

BACKGROUND – THE FORTUNE SOCIETY:   Based in New York City, Fortune serves approximately 5,000 clients a year, providing comprehensive services including housing, education, employment, health, and case management programs, among others.  Approximately 95 percent of Fortune clients are African-American or Latino.

Fortune provides temporary and permanent housing for hundreds of formerly incarcerated individuals each year through “scattered-site” programs that place clients in private rental housing throughout the City. Fortune has developed successful relationships with more than 100 landlords to facilitate its scattered-site housing and regularly seeks out new locations for these programs. Fortune also operates two residences in West Harlem – offering emergency and “phased-permanent” housing, as well as a 110,000 square-foot apartment building with 114 units for formerly incarcerated individuals and low income families from the local community.

FORTUNE’S HISTORY WITH LANDLORDIn 2013, Fortune received a housing assistance grant to provide funding for 25 residential units in Queens.  Fortune determined that “The Sand Castle” apartment complex owned and operated by the Defendants would be an ideal site to house program participants. Specifically, the property is located in a relatively safe and racially diverse area within the grant’s geographical limitation, and in a neighborhood in which there are already Fortune clients. The waterfront property is budget-friendly, conveniently located to public transportation, and features numerous amenities, including a supermarket, on-site medical facilities, and a doorman.

When the Defendants learned that Fortune serves formerly incarcerated individuals, they refused to rent apartments to Fortune stating that they enforce a policy prohibiting anyone with a criminal record from renting an apartment or living at “The Sand Castle.”

Fortune again contacted the Defendants in early 2014 and confirmed that there were vacant apartments available for rent. Fortune was clear that its clients have criminal backgrounds and the Defendants made it clear that they did not wish to conduct any further business with Fortune because of those criminal backgrounds.

INTENTIONAL DISCRIMINATION/DISPARATE IMPACT: The complaint contends that the Defendants’ imposition of a blanket ban is the result of intentional discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The Defendants began trying to remake the image of The Sand Castle when Defendant Sarasota Gold purchased it in 2006.  By implementing and maintaining the blanket ban, they effectively disqualify otherwise qualified African Americans and Latinos from living in the building at a rate at least three to four and one-half  times the rate, respectively, at which whites are disqualified.  The ban is consistent with the Defendants’ goal of limiting the number of new minority tenants in the building, attracting white tenants, and gentrifying the building.

The complaint also contends that the Defendants’ blanket ban at “The Sand Castle” violates the Fair Housing Act because it has a clear disparate impact on the basis of race. In New York State, more than 50 percent of the 25,060 inmates released in 2009 were African American and over 25 percent were Latino.  In 2011, the New York City Department of Correction released 88,000 people from its disproportionately African American and Latino inmate population.  Federal data is comparable.  This means that both African Americans and Latinos are much likelier than whites to be barred from housing by automatic exclusions of people with records.

 

ALTERNATIVE TO THE BLANKET BAN: The lawsuit contends that the Defendants must replace its blanket ban with an individualized assessment of each prospective tenant. Prospective tenants who have criminal records, but who pose no realistic threat to the community, would be able to obtain housing. This more targeted and narrower approach would protect public safety equally well, yet it would be less discriminatory and exclusionary.

Relman noted that this is similar to the approach now endorsed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when it comes to job applications.

 

FORTUNE SEEKS RELIEF: Fortune is seeking an injunction enjoining the Defendants from continuing the discriminatory blanket ban and preventing its use in the future.  It is also seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

Mr. Relman concluded, “In short, this lawsuit has the potential to set a new standard across the nation for what landlords can and cannot do.  It has the potential to change the way we think about re-entry issues in this country.  If we prevail, this case will be the first to demonstrate that blanket bans imposed by private housing providers violate our civil rights laws.  The lawsuit demonstrates that denying basic rights to those formerly incarcerated is not simply bad public policy, it is a civil rights issue that affects questions of both racial and economic justice.”

 

Contact:           Colleen Roche

LAK Public Relations

212-329-1413

croche@lakpr.com

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