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U.S. Supreme Court ruling impacts Oyster Bay housing discrimination case

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto looks on

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto looks on during a meeting at Town Hall, Tuesday July 21, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling took away a key defense used by Oyster Bay and Supervisor John Venditto in a federal lawsuit alleging the town discriminated against African-Americans in two housing programs.

Venditto denies the town's policies discriminate and said attorneys will continue to defend the town and him in the lawsuit.

The federal government last year sued the town and Venditto, alleging the preferences Oyster Bay gives to town residents and their children for below-market-rate senior and first-time-buyer housing is discriminatory.

African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of town residents eligible for the programs, so the residency preferences helped result in no black residents in any of the 58 first-time-buyer units and very few in the more than 1,400 senior housing units the town has approved, court documents show.

Town attorneys argued in legal briefs that the government had to prove the town intended to discriminate against African-Americans -- a high legal bar.

But the Supreme Court ruled June 25 in a Texas case that the Fair Housing Act does not require proving intent. Discrimination can occur if a policy causes a "disparate impact" on a group of people -- in the Oyster Bay case, African-Americans.

"It's much easier to show impact rather than intent," said Leon Friedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and an expert in civil-rights law.

But town attorney and Deputy Supervisor Leonard Genova said the ruling does not hurt the town's case. "We were hopeful that the Supreme Court decision would help our case dramatically, but I don't know that the landscape has changed," Genova said.

Even though town officials had argued that discriminatory intent must be proved under the Fair Housing Act, most U.S. appellate courts -- including the Second Circuit, which includes Long Island -- have long interpreted the act as not requiring intent, Friedman said.

The Supreme Court ruling "strengthens and confirms the law that already existed," Friedman said.

Olatunde Johnson, a law professor at Columbia University and an expert on anti-discrimination law, said despite the appellate court rulings finding that intent is not necessary, defendants such as Oyster Bay tried to argue that it was. The Supreme Court ruling "takes away the ability of Oyster Bay to effectively raise that argument," she said.

Yet simply showing through statistics that a housing program has few black beneficiaries isn't enough to win a case, Johnson said.

A court must weigh the data against the arguments of governments such as Oyster Bay that they have a "substantial justification" for a policy and that there was no alternative to the policy that would have avoided affecting minorities differently, she said.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the case.

Venditto said residency preferences for the housing programs were instituted so senior citizens and first-time home buyers could afford to stay in Oyster Bay near family and friends. Developers are allowed to build denser housing in exchange for lower sale prices.

"These programs do not exclude anyone from applying and do not favor anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity," Venditto said.

Even though residents are given priority, about 13 percent of beneficiaries of the senior housing program have been nonresidents, he said. In addition, nonresidents accounted for about 7 percent of initial sales of first-time-buyer units and 54 percent of resales, Venditto said through town spokeswoman Marta Kane.

Johnson said even though residency preferences appear to be race-neutral, they can perpetuate segregation in areas such as Oyster Bay that are overwhelmingly white.

Elaine Gross, president of the Syosset-based ERASE Racism, which last year filed a complaint against Nassau County alleging housing discrimination, said she hoped the Supreme Court ruling makes municipalities think more carefully before instituting policies that could disproportionately benefit whites.

The group said in an April 2014 complaint before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the county illegally used federal funds to concentrate subsidized housing for families in areas of the county with large black populations and put most subsidized senior housing in primarily white communities.

HUD, which has for decades used the disparate-impact standard, is still reviewing the complaint, said agency spokesman Brian Sullivan.


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