Legal experts say a federal judge's decision to give
the go-ahead to a housing discrimination lawsuit filed by Hofstra Law School
and Latino tenants against the Village of Farmingdale shows how disputes about
"gentrification" are expanding from cities to the suburbs.
Hofstra and the plaintiffs, who include some day laborers, allege the
village engaged in a deliberate campaign to drive Latinos out of Farmingdale,
in part by encouraging redevelopment of an apartment building at 150 Secatogue
Ave. that served as the heart of the village's "Little Latin America."
Judge Denis Hurley of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
New York this month denied a motion by the village to dismiss the lawsuit. The
case is expected to go to trial by next spring.
The 54-unit building was renovated by Fairfield Properties, which ordered
residents to leave by December 2006. It reopened the building in April as
"luxury apartments," with hiked rents. One Latina resident, Ana Maria Mora,
remained, in a temporary deal negotiated by the developer in an earlier bid to
settle the suit.
Officials called it an eyesore
Farmingdale officials strenuously deny they were engaged in a campaign to
rid the village of Latinos, saying the project involved a private developer who
refurbished what had become an eyesore. They said the village had little
control over the project, which met legal requirements.
"Absolutely, unequivocally no," said village attorney Kevin Walsh when
asked if there was any anti-Latino effort in the village. "It's just not true.
There's no basis for it."
Joel Kaplan, an attorney for the building's previous owner, John and
Michelle Tosini, also named as defendants, dismissed the allegations, too.
"They don't even have a thin case. They have no case," he said of the lawsuit.
He added the Tosinis rented to Latinos for years without a problem.
But Ann Seligsohn, of Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., a White
Plains-based nonprofit fair housing organization, said the case was important
because it showed the judge may be recognizing new forms of discrimination such
as "upscaling" to price out minorities. "This is a wonderful step forward,"
she said. "There are different ways of discriminating. It isn't just 'No, we
have no apartments for you.'"
Michael Olshan of the Fair Housing Center of Metropolitan Detroit, a
nonprofit that tracks such case nationwide, said his organization knew of only
15 similar cases filed by private parties against municipalities from 2000 to
2007. Getting a judge to bring a case to trial "is a major victory for the
plaintiffs," who in most cases went on to win, he said.
Diane L. Houk, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and formerly a
U.S. Justice Department attorney in the civil rights and housing division, said
the case shows how gentrification of aging buildings - once an issue limited
to cities - is expanding to places such as Long Island. "I think it is coming
to the suburbs as you have apartment complexes and other buildings that are
becoming older," said Houk, executive director of the Manhattan-based Fair
Housing Justice Center.
A question of fair housing
While New York municipalities generally are under no legal obligation to
create affordable housing, Houk said, most are under an obligation to
"affirmatively further fair housing" because they receive federal funds. "These
developments are really opportunities to do the right thing," creating a mix
of affordable and market rate apartments, she said.
Robert G. Schwemm, a housing discrimination expert and professor at the
University of Kentucky, said the key will be the plaintiffs' ability to prove,
for instance, that the village treated differently a similar run-down apartment
complex occupied by whites, or that officials engaged in a series of actions
showing their real intent was to drive out Latinos.
The lawsuit is the latest twist in a long-standing battle over day laborers
in Farmingdale dating to the late 1990s.
A chronology of conflict
April 2000 After residents complain about day laborers gathering on streets to
wait for work, Mayor Joseph Trudden opens a hiring site at a lot on Elizabeth
June 2001 Trudden shuts down the hiring site, saying it was meant to be
temporary. Immigrant advocates say he wants to drive away Latinos.
June 2002 Village explores redevelopment of 6.69-acre area that includes
150 Secatogue Ave., an apartment complex occupied mainly by Latinos.
August 2002 A civic group of white and Latino residents opens alternate
hiring site behind a store on Route 110.
October 2002 The site is shut down when the store owner evicts them.
March 2005 Latino residents of 150 Secatogue Ave. sue the building owner,
saying he failed to make repairs and is involved in efforts to rid the village
of Hispanics. The owner, John Tosini, denies the allegations.
May 2006 Hofstra Law School files lawsuit alleging village is seeking to
drive out Latinos.
July 2006 Fairfield Properties buys 150 Secatogue Ave.
December 2006 Fairfield evicts remaining tenants from the building, with
the exception of one who returns under a special deal.
July 2008 Federal judge rules Hofstra's lawsuit can proceed.