Heatherwood Luxury Rentals, one of Long Island’s largest landlords, has agreed to pay $86,500 to settle claims it discriminated against tenants with disabilities.
The Commack-based real estate company reached the settlement with Long Island Housing Services, a fair housing agency in Bohemia, which started an investigation in 2016.
LIHS said its investigation showed that Southwood Luxury Apartments in North Amityville, which is owned by Heatherwood, had violated fair housing laws by failing to make a reasonable accommodation when an LIHS fair housing tester, posing as a prospective tenant, requested an assigned handicapped parking space. The superintendent for the building said it wasn’t possible, according to LIHS.
In a separate fair housing test of Southwood, a leasing officer told the tester that they could receive an unassigned handicapped parking spot and would need to work with neighbors to ensure the other residents didn’t use the spot or let guests use it.
The federal Fair Housing Act and state Human Rights Law require housing providers to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. The company failed to make an effort to do so in the fair housing tests, said Ian Wilder, executive director of LIHS.
“They’re supposed to try and find a reasonable solution that works,” Wilder said. “The whole point of making disability a protected class is that someone with a disability gets to enjoy the use of their home in the same way that their neighbors do.”
People with physical disabilities often need handicapped spots, not only to provide easy access to ramps and entrances, but to provide extra space to accommodate their mobility devices, such as wheelchairs or walkers, he said.
A Southwood employee also told an LIHS fair housing tester that the person could not live on the second floor with a service animal because pets aren’t allowed on that floor.
“The rules that apply to pets don't apply to service animals,” Wilder said.
Service animals are protected under federal and state fair housing rules and landlords must make reasonable accommodations for the animals unless they can demonstrate it would cause an undue financial and administrative burden.
A Heatherwood employee told Newsday on Thursday that there was no one available to speak with a reporter.
Wilder said housing providers need to set up policies to determine how they might be able to make accommodations for people with disabilities.
“If there’s a housing provider out there that doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to do, they [need to] know there’s a process that they’re supposed to go through and they don’t just make a snap decision,” Wilder said.
The settlement includes the adoption by Heatherwood of policies around fair housing, parking and emotional support and service animals. The apartment operator also said it would provide fair housing training to its staff.
Wilder said the $86,500 will help LIHS cover the costs of the investigation and attorney fees it incurred during the past five years.
The agency recently reached a separate $40,000 settlement with Brookwood Apartments, which runs six Suffolk County apartment complexes.
Wilder said he would like to see municipalities require housing providers to prove they have fair housing policies in place when they apply for or renew rental permits.
“These large businesses should have the policies in place already,” he said. “The best place I see to do that is the municipalities that give them rental permits. … Give them a form and say, ‘This has to be included with everything you do.’ We’re past time for places like us to do one-by-one lawsuits.”