Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Partners Secure Major Settlement in Fair Housing Lawsuit Against the Village of Mastic Beach, New York

By | August 25, 2017

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced a major settlement in the case of Long Island Housing Services, Inc. v. Village of Mastic Beach (EDNY). This case against the Village of Mastic Beach, New York and Timothy Brojer, the former Village Administrator of Mastic Beach, challenged code enforcement actions of the defendants that were alleged to discriminatorily target African-American renters and their landlords in violation of their constitutional rights. The Lawyers’ Committee co-counseled the lawsuit with Cooley LLP, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the non-profit organization Long Island Housing Services, Inc. (LIHS). Under the terms of the settlement, the Village of Mastic Beach will pay $387,500 to the plaintiffs, who include six individual tenants and two landlords.

The Lawyers’ Committee and Cooley LLP filed the lawsuit in 2015 after LIHS contacted them with the results of their investigation into complaints of aggressive code enforcement targeting African-American renters and landlords. Specifically, Village of Mastic Beach Code Enforcement officials had evicted several African-American tenants who receive housing subsidies, citing minor housing code violations, without providing lawful notice or an opportunity to be heard prior to the eviction. Village officials routinely ordered tenants to walk away from their homes and belongings with only a few hours’ notice. The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that this conduct violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, among other laws.

“This settlement sends a strong message to municipalities on Long Island and across the country that attempts to use code enforcement to push people of color out of their communities will not be tolerated,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Communities must think twice before throwing residents out of their homes and into the street.”

“It is critical to champion the needs of those less fortunate and unfairly targeted so as to protect their inalienable rights and ensure access to justice,” said Joe Drayton, partner at Cooley LLP, lead counsel and member of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Board of Trustees. “This settlement has helped to heal the wounds experienced by our clients as a result of the Village’s unlawful acts.”

Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the decision of Mastic Beach residents to incorporate the Village in 2010 stemmed in large part from animus toward the community’s growing African American population; incorporation advocates seized upon aggressive code enforcement as a strategy for driving out African American tenants receiving rental assistance. But the Village proved short-lived. In November 2016, Mastic Beach voters dissolved the Village, effective December 31, 2017.

“Our country thrives when individuals who receive rental assistance are able to access housing in the neighborhoods of their choice,” said Joe Rich, Co-Director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Housing & Community Development Project. “Municipal policies and practices that deny families with rental assistance the right to live in certain places are likely to violate the Fair Housing Act.”

“The horrendous governmental abuse of authority revealed through LIHS’ investigation is deeply disturbing. LIHS will continue to aggressively monitor municipalities to ensure full compliance with local, state and federal Fair Housing laws,” said Michelle Santantonio, Executive Director of Long Island Housing Services. “LIHS is committed to assisting victims of discrimination to challenge practices that violate their rights. Long Island municipalities would do well to learn from the cautionary tale of Mastic Beach.”

Under the terms of the settlement, until dissolution of the Village is finalized, the Village is required to comply with the local, state and federal civil rights laws.

“Racially-motivated housing code enforcement is one of the most insidious forms of discrimination because it is often difficult to ferret out those responsible and hold them accountable,” said Brian Corman of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. “We are pleased that the settlement brings a measure of justice to those unfairly evicted or otherwise targeted because of their race.”