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Lawsuit a symbol of 'gentrification'

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

Street.

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.

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