EAST NEW YORK — A Brooklyn management company was fined $33,000 by the City Commission on Human Rights after leaving a 74-year-old woman homeless for two months by illegally rejecting her housing voucher, according to court documents.
The commission last week fined the landlord, American Construction Associates, $20,000 for discriminating against 74-year-old Miladys Agosto, on the basis of her use of a voucher and also ordered the company to pay Agosto an additional $13,000 for emotional distress, according to a spokesman for the agency.
Both fines were double the amount ordered by a judge, a measure meant to underscore the city’s dedication to stamping out housing discrimination, according to Carmelyn Malalis, chair and commissioner of the CCHR.
“The commission is sending a message loud and clear to landlords and brokers that NYC will not tolerate source of income discrimination,” Malalis said in a statement. "Everyone in this city deserves a safe and affordable place to live no matter how they pay their rent or security deposit, and the commission will continue to use every tool it has to hold landlords accountable and get justice for victims.”
In the trial, a judge with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings found that representatives of the company, Valentine and Nicola Johnson, initially accepted from Agosto a portion of her first month’s rent and an HRA voucher, but later canceled the lease saying the company refused to accept the voucher, according to a court documents.
According to New York’s Human Rights Law, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of the use of vouchers, according to the decision.
Contact information for the Johnsons, who operate their business out of an office on Jamaica Avenue in Queens Village, was not immediately available.
The trouble began in July of 2014, when Agosto looked at a unit on the second floor of an illegally converted building — which had multiple units and shared bathrooms and kitchens on each floor — at 2129 Pitkin Ave. between Wyona and Vermont streets.
Agosto eventually signed a two-year lease for a one-room, $750-per-month unit, and gave Johnson $200 in cash and a $215 emergency assistance check from the Human Resources Administration. She also gave Johnson a voucher from the HRA that guaranteed the agency would pay for the unit’s security deposit should Agosto fail to pay her rent or damage the apartment, according to the decision.
Johnson accepted the cash, check and voucher, which he signed, but he later changed his mind, telling Agosto that his company didn't accept such vouchers, and canceled the lease agreement, according to the court records.
Agosto spent the next two months living on the streets and in old houses, which left her unable to sleep or shower regularly and which she described as humiliating and left her feeling “very bad.”
By October 2014 Agosto managed to find housing, but Johnson refused to return her HRA assistance check for $215, forcing her to get help from Brooklyn Legal Services in order to retrieve it, according to a tenant counselor who testified at the trial.
Throughout the ordeal, Johnson admitted to both Agosto and her tenant counselor that the reason for cancelling the lease was the company’s refusal to accept a security voucher, according to the complaint.
Later that month, Agosto filed a complaint with CCHR against the Johnsons, and though they initially responded by filing papers in their defense, the pair repeatedly skipped hearings with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, or OATH — only reappearing to contest the eventual finding in Agosto’s favor, according to the CCHR decision.
A judge with OATH eventually issued a decision in December of 2015 finding the pair guilty of discrimination and recommending a civil penalty of $10,000 and restitution to Agosto of $6,000. They also recommended the landlords undergo anti-discrimination training, a finding the landlords contested.
In a decision filed last week, CCHR doubled the recommended fines, issuing a civil penalty of $20,000 and ordering the Johnsons to pay Agosto $13,000 for the emotional distress caused by her rejection from the apartment and the resulting time spent living on the streets.
If they fail to pay within 30 days, the city could fine them an additional $100 per day, according to court documents.
New Yorkers who have been the victims of housing discrimination can contact the New York City Commission on Human Rights at 718-722-3131 or report discrimination via 311.