New York Times, June 14, 2004

Fair-Housing Groups Say New York City Is Falling Behind
by David W. Chen

For decades, New York City was considered a pioneer in the fight for fair housing. It passed the country's first law forbidding discrimination in private housing in 1958. It passed a tough, broader human rights law in 1991 that exceeded federal criteria.

It even had one of the first federally financed watchdog groups, the Open Housing Center, to pursue claims of bias, holding real estate brokers and landlords to account if they gave preference to one race over another or discriminated against the disabled.

In the last few years, however, many housing advocates say that this commitment has flagged, and there is substantial evidence that the city remains one of the most segregated places to live in the nation.

Andrew M. Cuomo, formerly the nation's top housing official, calls the city backward when its record is compared with the fair housing efforts of other cities, even smaller ones.

In late 2001, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York concluded that neither the Commission on Human Rights nor the Law Department, the city's primary agencies for fair housing and human rights enforcement, had "adequately performed its jobs of preventing and remedying discrimination."

And in the spring of 2003, the Open Housing Center folded after 40 years in the wake of internal management problems and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The private nonprofit center had aggressively investigated claims of housing discrimination and had recruited lawyers from white-shoe firms to sue brokers and landlords.

New York, according to the 2000 census, is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, with few neighborhoods having balanced mixtures of races and ethnic groups. A HUD study in 2002 found that New York had the highest rate of discrimination against prospective Hispanic home buyers among 20 cities, and the fifth-highest rate against African-Americans.

But government officials say that the fair-housing picture in New York is not nearly as bleak as some of their critics suggest.

The Commission on Human Rights says that the 2001 report reflects outdated conditions from the Giuliani administration, and that under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg it has instituted major reforms and eliminated a backlog of 5,000 cases.

HUD officials said the department awarded five fair-housing grants totaling $475,000 to community groups more than two months ago, and noted that two private groups are establishing their own fair-housing initiatives, including one spearheaded by Mr. Cuomo. And the agency said that it was unfair to blame HUD for precipitating the Open Housing Center's collapse.

"How does an organization that has been in existence for 30 years, and during much of that time was well respected, not have sufficient private resources to remain open?" said Adam Glantz, a HUD spokesman. "While we regret that the Open Housing Center closed, I think we can safely say that New York City residents continue to be served very well."

At its peak, the Open Housing Center employed a staff of about 30 in about half a dozen offices. And it challenged not just individual brokers accused of discrimination, but also real estate empires like LeFrak and Trump.

In a case that began in 1996 and ended only last year, for instance, the center, assisted free by the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, won a $20,000 settlement for a Brooklyn transit employee, Miguel Mora. Mr. Mora had accused Kessler Realty, a real estate brokerage in the Brighton Beach area, of racial discrimination against him and his wife, Cristel, when they were hunting for apartments. Mr. Mora, who is light-skinned, said that the broker had initially agreed to show him several apartments, but then suddenly claimed that the units were all gone after the broker met Ms. Mora, who is dark-skinned.

"My wife and I, we still think about it, we still hurt, but we feel that we did something," Mr. Mora said.

By the late 1990's, though, the Open Housing Center began to become embroiled in management disputes, said Phyllis Spiro, its former deputy director, and others. One former board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the center had fired several longtime staff members and hired a relative of its executive director, Karen Webber. In 2001, HUD awarded its last contract paying the center to send testers to landlords and brokers to check for discrimination. The department eventually audited the center because of concerns about its management and performance.

When reached by e-mail, Ms. Webber did not respond directly to the criticisms. But she said the office never recovered from being forced to close after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The center's office, which was on John Street in Lower Manhattan, suffered serious physical damage after the World Trade Center collapsed a few blocks away.

"Despite staffing shortages and a small and unsteady stream of funding for the organization over the years," Ms. Webber wrote, "the Open Housing Center addressed the fair housing and other housing complaints of thousands of New Yorkers."

Victor Goode, the center's chairman, who is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, said HUD had been too hard on the center, and should have worked harder to get the office back on its feet.

Last year, the National Fair Housing Alliance, a coalition of about 80 groups, proposed establishing a new group here to replace the center. But HUD rejected the application because of a recent rule change that bars organizations from securing fair-housing grants in consecutive years.

That decision angered Shanna Smith, president of the alliance, who accused HUD of retreating from its commitment to fair housing. Nationwide, she said, the number of charges of housing discrimination issued by HUD dropped from an average of 86 in the late 1990's to only 23 in the 2003 fiscal year, and 18 in the first six months of the 2004 fiscal year.

The alliance's criticisms of HUD were echoed by eight members of New York's Congressional delegation, who wrote the department in April.

"This is like a Catch-22," said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a Manhattan Democrat. "HUD is basically saying, 'We'd love to ensure fair housing and fight discrimination in the nation's largest city, but our rules won't let us.' "

Mr. Glantz said that HUD did not yet have a formal response to the Congressional letter. But he took strong exception to the contention that HUD had ignored New York.

Of the nearly 1,000 cases in New York City that have been completed since Oct. 1, 1999, by HUD and its partners, chiefly the New York State Division on Human Rights, about one-quarter ended with the complaining party's getting a settlement or acceptable result. About 50 yielded charges of probable cause, Mr. Glantz said.

In the last nine months, South Brooklyn Legal Services has received two grants totaling $410,000 to help homeowners alleging discrimination in financing and sales. Four other groups are receiving education grants of $80,000 to $100,000, Mr. Glantz said.

And before its demise, the Open Housing Center received 13 federal grants from 1994 to 2001 totaling $3.6 million, far more than just about any other comparable housing organization.

While HUD has absorbed its share of criticism of late, the city's Commission on Human Rights has been a regular target for years.

First, there was the 2001 report by the bar association. Then, last September, a report by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a new fair-housing advocacy group, concluded that the commission rarely found probable cause to proceed with civil rights cases, handled fewer new cases in 2002 than usual and did not seek stiff enough penalties in cases that were settled.

The center also found that the commission had cut the number of city-financed employees to 21 from 152 in 1991, said Craig Gurian, the center's executive director, who is a former chief counsel of the Commission on Human Rights' law enforcement bureau.

"It's a heartbreak," said Ms. Spiro, formerly of the Open Housing Center. "I talk to people at the city commission, and I know there's nothing going on."

The commission strongly disagrees, saying that the cuts in city-financed positions have been compensated by private grants and additional federal funds. The commission also says that under the leadership of Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, it has expanded its public education role and obtained settlements totaling about $2 million in the past two years, compared with only $600,000 in the previous two.

It has even secured $500,000 in settlements on cases that had languished for more than a decade, said Avery S. Mehlman, deputy commissioner in charge of the law enforcement bureau.

"I think that our record and our numbers speak for themselves," he said. "We have a very, very active investigations unit in our agency, which not only investigates complaints, but initiates investigations regarding all issues of discrimination."

In response to the concerns about enforcement, the National Fair Housing Alliance said it would apply again to open a new private center, and Mr. Cuomo has also announced plans to open a Fair Housing Justice Center that will stress litigation through HELP USA, an organization of which he is a co-chairman.

"It's amazing how backwards we are here, even though we like to say that we are the most progressive city in the nation, and we are a melting pot," Mr. Cuomo said. "Fair housing is a difficult topic, because it exposes the sensitive issue of race, so politicians and government tread lightly. So that's why we're pushing litigation, because that's when people know you're serious."