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Farmingdale Latino housing bias suit about to go to court

Anna Gomez stands in front of 150 Secatogue

Anna Gomez stands in front of 150 Secatogue Ave. in Farmingdale. (Jan. 8, 2014) Credit: Ed Betz

A federal anti-discrimination lawsuit accusing Farmingdale officials of trying to systematically force Latinos out of the village's "Little Latin America" neighborhood is about to go to court, eight years after it was filed.

The case culminates years of conflict over Latino residents, including day laborers in the village. If the plaintiffs prevail, it could have national impact in preventing suburban communities from pushing out minorities through "gentrification," said Stefan Krieger, a Hofstra University Law School professor who is leading the case for the immigrants.

Jury selection is set to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

The Latino workers "want to have their day in court," Krieger said. "They want their voices to be heard."

Village attorney Claudio DeBellis called accusations that Farmingdale tried to push Latinos out of the community "offensive."

"The village didn't discriminate against anybody," DeBellis said. "The village has a very good relationship with the Latino community. Farmingdale is receptive to all people."

The case filed by nine Latinos -- day laborers, housekeepers and factory workers -- along with Hofstra Law School's housing law reform clinic, centers on a former 54-unit apartment building at 150 Secatogue Ave. The building housed about 150 Latinos until it was sold in 2006 and turned into upscale apartments.

The suit seeks to force Farmingdale to create new affordable housing to replace what was lost and pay damages of about $170,000 for each plaintiff, or about $1.5 million.

Krieger contends the village helped facilitate the building's sale and the ouster of the Latino residents by failing to force the former owner to make needed repairs on the decaying building, and then fast-tracking permit processes for the new owner.

"This is going on all over the country, in which communities, rather than try to maintain housing for low-income people, let it deteriorate. Then they assist developers with certain perks to push the population out," Krieger said, referring to minorities as the population that is adversely affected.

DeBellis said the village did all it could to correct problems at the apartment building, fining the previous owner and issuing summonses until he finally sold it to Commack-based Fairfield Properties.

That company applied to the village to overhaul the building, which the developer had a legal right to do and which helped improve a blighted area, DeBellis said.

"We didn't own the building. We didn't develop the building. We didn't evict the residents. We didn't make housing unavailable," he said.

DeBellis also said the village has since approved several projects in the community that include affordable housing.

One plaintiff, Ana Maria Mora Gomez, 50, a native of Mexico, said her life hasn't been the same since she and the others were forced to leave the building. An employee of a local dry cleaner, she said she has moved six times looking for an apartment she can afford.

"In the village we are not very wanted by the white people," she said in Spanish. "It's been difficult."

In the 2010 census, Farmingdale's population was 8,399, of which 85.2 percent were white, 13.7 percent Hispanic, 5.5 percent Asian and 2.6 percent black.

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