Race and Renting
Q. I am having trouble getting selected for apartments after I submit an application. I am worried that I am getting snubbed because I am black and it’s easy to discern that from my name alone. I envision a scenario where my application is being considered next to a nonminority application and the powers that be choose the other applicants because they are perceived to be less of a risk. I attended a top college and have previously paid rents as high as $1,575 a month in downtown Manhattan; I have no marks on my credit score, and I have a high-paying job at a top asset management firm on Wall Street. Race must be a factor that is in play here. I’m tired of seeing my dream apartments plucked out from under my nose because of factors that I can’t control. Are there any tactical approaches I can employ to change this outcome? I’m truly running out of patience.
A. Fair-housing laws prohibit race discrimination, but that doesn’t mean the practice has ended. Instead, it now happens in the stealthy and furtive ways you’ve experienced, according to a 2012 study commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A landlord might not show a prospective Hispanic tenant a two-bedroom apartment, but he will show it to the white applicant. White tenants might be offered preferential rents or have fees waived.
“So much of the discrimination is so subtle that it’s not easily detected,” said Fred Freiberg, the executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “It is not uncommon for people to be discriminated against and not even know it.”
You suspect that your name betrays your race, but if you included a copy of your driver’s license on your application, your image would most likely give it away as well. And, in the age of social media, it doesn’t take long for a prospective landlord to figure out your origins. At the same time, in a tight rental market in which you’re submitting applications for multiple apartments, it might be hard to tell whether you’ve been passed over because of your race, or you’ve simply been passed over.
So what do you do? Reach out to an organization like the Fair Housing Justice Center. In many cases, it can conduct a testing investigation, which is free. The center sends out trained “testers” of different races to inquire about an apartment in a building where you suspect discrimination occurred. If they find that your suspicions are correct, you may be entitled to damages, an opportunity to rent the apartment, and other remedies available under fair-housing laws.
Having to start an investigation might feel like a bitter pill to swallow: Finding an apartment in New York City is hard enough without the added indignity of discrimination. But on the other hand, stepping forward and exposing injustice might help curb the practice.
Stairway to Heaven
Q. I recently bought a home that adjoins a church. A social club in the early 1900s, the church has a long vertical fire escape that is not actually attached, but instead bridged to it by a walkway that protrudes about 15 feet into my backyard and is covered in metal sheeting. Both the staircase and the metal sheeting that cover it are rotting away because of old age. The structure also covers up most of my yard space, affecting how much I can use the backyard and my property value. What recourse do I have? Can I ask that it be removed or modified so that the intrusion into my space is limited?
A. The backyard is your property, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the staircase shouldn’t be there. The church might be required to have the structure there. Look to your closing documents and see if there is any mention of an easement license or right of way. Check the survey to see if the staircase appears on it.
“It really comes down to: Can we sue to get it removed and what do we win?” said Lorraine Nadel, a real estate lawyer. ‘The first step is to talk to them and see what can be done.”
If the structure is abandoned - maybe there’s a different fire escape, or the door that connects to the staircase has been walled off - then you can argue that it should be taken down. But even if it is permitted, it needs to be maintained. And a rusting, decaying structure is hardly a safe fire-escape route. You could call 311 to file a complaint about a safety hazard, but setting your neighbors up for a violation would certainly antagonize them before you’ve given them a chance to remedy the problem.
Use the case of the crumbling fire escape as an opportunity to introduce yourself to your new neighbors at the church. Discuss the issue with them. If they must have the staircase, suggest they upgrade to a more modern (and perhaps less intrusive) alternative. If it is no longer used, ask them to remove it. Perhaps you could offer to make a generous donation to the church (one that would cover about half of the cost of removing or replacing the structure). Explain to them that the structure is unsightly and unsafe, both for guests to your home and parishioners trying to use it in an emergency.
Q. The lock to my apartment door broke two years ago. When my key got stuck in the door on a Sunday, I called the locksmith whose number was taped to the door. He charged me $300 for the repair. I submitted the receipt and explanation to the management. I was told it didn’t recognize the receipt as coming from one of its approved locksmiths and would not pay me back. I’ve since moved, but I’m still trying to get reimbursed for the broken lock. I’ve called the locksmith to plead my case, and he said the phone number I called was his, but he doesn’t recognize the receipt either, because it was a generic document with no company name on it. Do I have any legal recourse for getting reimbursed?
West Village, Manhattan
A. If your lock was broken (and you weren’t the one to break it), you should have been reimbursed for the cost of a locksmith, according to Daphna Zekaria, a lawyer who represents tenants. But because you no longer live in the apartment, your only option is to take the case to small-claims court. Go to the Manhattan courthouse, fill out an application and pay a small filing fee. On your court date, bring all the proof you have: your receipt, a copy of your lease, and, if you have it, a picture of the broken lock and the sticker with the locksmith’s number on it. Given the modest dollar amount of your claim, you certainly don’t need a lawyer representing you for this. You can find out more about how to file a claim at the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs website.