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Great Neck Plaza to pay $200G as part of settlement of federal housing discrimination suit

The Maestro, a 94-unit rental complex with 19

The Maestro, a 94-unit rental complex with 19 affordable housing units, at 255 Great Neck Rd. in Great Neck Plaza on May 30, 2014. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Great Neck Plaza has settled its part of a federal lawsuit alleging that the village and the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency violated fair housing laws by denying minorities equal access to affordable housing units at an apartment complex.

The village agreed to pay $200,000 in damages and attorney's fees, amend its town zoning code and eliminate the use of discriminatory preferences. Under the four-year agreement, the village must eliminate its age and residency preferences and broaden the geographic area where affordable housing can be developed. It is to continue offering a 20 percent density bonus to attract prospective developers of affordable housing, and 14 other affordable housing units must also be built.

Litigation against the IDA is ongoing. Joseph Kearney, the IDA's executive director, declined to comment Monday.

In May 2014, two fair-housing nonprofits -- Long Island Housing Services and the Fair Housing Justice Center -- filed a complaint in Central Islip with the Eastern District Court of New York stating that the village violated local, state and federal fair housing laws by enforcing requirements for affordable housing that discriminated on the basis of age and race.

The plaintiffs claimed that the eligibility criteria for The Maestro, a 94-unit rental complex with 19 affordable housing units, favored long-term residents of the predominantly white village, excluding opportunities for minorities and sustaining racial segregation.

The plaintiff's attorney said her clients were pleased with the settlement, which was reached last week.

"Fortunately, these discriminatory rules and requirements were not in place a long time and did not affect multiple places," the plaintiff's lead attorney, Diane L. Houk of Manhattan-based Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, said Monday. "It only affected The Maestro."

The village must change its affordable-housing law within 60 days of the Oct. 1 settlement date. The village board of trustees may also have to conduct a review to assess environmental effects related to the settlement, Village Attorney Richard Gabriele said.

"We thought we were in compliance before," Gabriele said, adding that the village did not acknowledge that there was a "disparate impact" on applicants.

In 2005, the village established an affordable-housing ordinance with three general eligibility categories. Prospective renters were divided using a tiered system with strict age requirements and residency preferences, such as an age limit of 40 or younger and a primary village residence for at least 10 of the past 15 years.

Under the village code, only households earning between 50 and 100 percent of the HUD-mandated median income limits for Nassau and Suffolk counties are eligible to rent affordable housing units. That eligibility, combined with the village's residency preferences, left an applicant pool that is predominantly white.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint that the criteria, combined with income guidelines and village code, restricted access to affordable housing by excluding almost all applicants between ages 40 and 65. This effectively gave white residents priority access at the expense of African-American residents. The lawsuit also said accommodation requests for applicants with disabilities requiring in-home health aides were rejected.

As part of the settlement, the village will no longer screen applicants for units and instead will require developers to take on that responsibility. In addition, 14 new affordable housing units must also be constructed.

"It's not an insignificant remedy given the size of the village," said David Lebowitz, also one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

According to the 2010 census, the village's population was 78 percent non-Hispanic white and about 1 percent non-Hispanic black.

The village board of trustees approved the permit and plans for The Maestro in 2011. The IDA granted tax exemptions to Plaza Landmark, the rental complex's developer.

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