The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Town of Oyster Bay and Town Supervisor John Venditto Thursday for allegedly discriminating against black people in two affordable housing programs -- one aimed at first-time buyers, the other at senior citizens.
In a complaint filed in federal court in Central Islip, prosecutors said both programs violated the federal Fair Housing Act because preferences were given to residents, or their children, living in the town, which has few black residents. To ensure that black people were not discriminated against in the selection process, the town should have given equal treatment to prospective occupants from the larger, more diverse metropolitan area, the complaint said.
"Housing programs designed to help young families and senior citizens purchase homes should be available to people of all races, including African-Americans," Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement Thursday. "To the extent residency preferences prevent families and senior citizens from purchasing homes because of race, ethnicity or color, the preferences violate federal law and cannot be tolerated."
Jocelyn Samuels, the acting attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement, "if municipalities wish to adopt residency preferences such as those imposed by the defendants, they most do so in way that does not discriminate against people based on race."
Because of the town's policies, none of the occupants of the housing aimed at first-time home buyers are black, and, at most, a handful of occupants of the senior citizen housing are black, the complaint says.
The Justice Department informed the town of its investigation in 2009, following a complaint filed by New York State earlier that year that it was discriminatory to give preference to Oyster Bay residents.
In a phone interview yesterday, Venditto declined to comment on whether the federal government had offered to settle its complaint.
Venditto said the town will defend itself against the allegations. The town hired lawyers last year to handle this federal case.
"It is just plain wrong to suggest that the Town of Oyster Bay is anything but a welcoming community to all people regardless of race," Venditto said in a statement.
"We are now prepared to vigorously defend our housing programs in court, because these housing programs are vitally important to our community."As an incentive to create affordable housing in both programs, builders were allowed to construct as many as 12 units per acre, more than regular town zoning requirements.
The program aimed at first-time home buyers, known as Next Generation, was created in 2004. It provides condominiums for families with incomes of between 80 percent and 120 percent of the median town income, according to the complaint.
So far under the program, 28 units have been built at The Seasons at Plainview and 30 at The Seasons at Massapequa. None of the buyers are black, according to the complaint.
When the Next Generation program was begun, Venditto said, its goal was "to keep our children here," the suit says. Venditto added, by "providing our young people with an opportunity to achieve the personal and financial stability that accompanies home ownership, we are helping ensure that our town remains the best place to live and raise a family for present and future generations."
Under the senior citizen program set up in 1993 and known as Golden Age, the town approved construction of 1,400 units.
"Virtually all of the housing units developed under the Golden Age program have been purchased by whites . . . only a handful, at most, have been purchased by African-Americans," the complaint says.
Since black people are such a small percentage of the population of the Town of Oyster Bay, any system that gives preference in publicly supported housing to town residents is a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act, the suit says.
The suit says black families compose only 1 percent of Oyster Bay residents eligible for the two programs. On the other hand, black people are 10 percent of the populations of Nassau and Suffolk counties. The Town of Oyster Bay is 85 percent white, the suit says.
But Venditto said the programs were established "to meet the needs of Town of Oyster Bay residents, and was not the product of racial bias."
"For nearly two decades, the Golden Age Housing Program has helped our senior citizens find affordable housing near their families and in the Town that many of them helped build," Venditto said. "For nearly a decade, the Next Generation Housing Program has helped our young people find affordable housing near their families and in the Town that they have grown up in."
The government seeks unspecified damages. It also seeks to have the town's actions declared a violation of the law and to bar future violations.
The Long Island Housing Partnership, which helped administer the selection process for the Next Generation program, was originally part of the suit. But that group settled yesterday with the government without admitting any wrongdoing, according to court papers.
In the settlement, the partnership, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing on Long Island, agreed to undertake a program to educate the public, government officials and the real estate community "regarding the requirements of the fair housing laws."With Bill Bleyer
and Zachary R. Dowdy