A Bronx landlord is accused of discriminating against prospective black tenants, telling them there are no vacancies available moments after telling white applicants that the building has open apartments, according to a lawsuit filed after secret recordings were made by undercover testers.
This week, the housing testers for New York’s Fair Housing Justice Center took the I-Team with them behind the scenes of one investigation, sharing recordings captured by hidden microphones, that they say reveals blatant discrimination by one Bronx landlord.
"Today, housing discrimination is like a revolving door where people are politely and courteously escorted in, out of, and ultimately away from the desired housing so there's no way they would even know they're being discriminated against,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Justice Center, the nonprofit organization that employs the testers.
On Wednesday, Fair Housing Justice filed a federal lawsuit against J.J.A. Holding Corp., a company they say they lied to prospective black tenants who were inquiring about two buildings in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx. In both cases, audio recordings catch rental agent Ray Brij-Raj telling the black candidates that there were no vacancies in the buildings right after he told white candidates there were, the suit alleges.
Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone for housing on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin, presence of children and disability. If you think you’ve been discriminated against, you can fill out a federal housing discrimination complaint form here. Additional protections are often afforded under state and local laws.
Neither J.J.A.'s CEO, Patrick O'Connell, nor its rental manager, Brij-Raj , responded to several requests for comment Wednesday, though several of the company's tenants cast doubt on the discrimination claim.
Margaret Farrell, who has rented from J.J.A. Holding for 40 years, said she is aware of at least one black family who lives in her building.
"How could he discriminate when they're living here," Farrell said. "It's a lot of nonsense."
The Fair Housing Justice Center uses tips and census data to look for buildings and neighborhoods that appear to be less diverse than the communities that surround them, Freiberg said.
In the Bronx case filed Wednesday, Fair Housing Justice did multiple tests at buildings in the Woodlawn neighborhood over several months before deciding to file suit, Freiberg said. The buildings where the organization did its tests are in a neighborhood where less than 5 percent of residents are black. The neighborhood directly to the east is 51 to 75 percent black, while the one to the north is between 6 percent and 25 percent black.
On two separate occasions, black housing testers arrived at J.J.A.’s buildings just as white housing testers were leaving, the lawsuit says. In both instances, the white housing testers saw apartments, but said they were not interested in them before leaving.
Moments later in both cases, the black housing testers arrived, passing the white testers.
The black testers then asked Brij-Raj if there were apartments available, the lawsuit says. In both cases, Brij-Raj told them the white people who had just left had rented the apartment -- a lie, the lawsuit says.
"When I asked about the availability of one-bedrooms, he said 'There are no apartments. The only one we had was just taken by that couple who just left,'” said John, a black housing tester. John and other testers asked us not to use their last names so they can continue to test landlords for Fair Housing Justice.
The I-Team asked one black tester, Bianca, whether she thought there could be another explanation why Brij-Raj told her there were no apartments available right after showing one to a white couple.
“I wouldn't say so,” she said. “I came with the same information and a smile."
Both Freiberg and his testers say real-life discrimination is different than some people imagine it; it's not always in the form of racial slurs or open rudeness.
“You don’t always know when you’re being discriminated against,” said Kelly, a white housing tester. “There’s blatant discrimination, and then there’s very charming, cheerful, friendly discrimination and you don’t necessarily know it’s happening.”