[Update: Article updated with a statement from The Durst Organization.]
A major New York real estate developer repeatedly built massive rental apartment buildings that were inaccessible to people with disabilities, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Tuesday.
According to Bharara’s office, the U.S. reached a settlement with The Durst Organization over a lawsuit that accused the developer of “engaging in a pattern and practice of developing rental apartment buildings that are inaccessible to persons with disabilities.”
The government sued Durst in April 2014, accusing the developer of building rental complexes that did not comply with the Fair Housing Act’s accessibility requirements.
According to the government, Durst developed two apartment buildings in Manhattan, The Helena and The Epic, each with more than 1,000 units, which were not fully accessible to persons with disabilities.
In September 2014, Durst moved to dismiss the government’s complaint on the grounds that Durst itself could not be held liable under the Fair Housing Act because it claimed that it was not involved with developing any of the referenced rental buildings.
The government opposed that motion, stating that Durst’s public statements on its own website described its executives’ direct involvement with the design and construction of buildings like The Helena.
On Jan. 9, 2015, the court denied Durst’s motion to dismiss. According to the Feds, shortly thereafter, Durst pursued settlement discussions with the government.
“This is the ninth in a series of lawsuits that this office has brought against real estate developers and architects who fail to design and construct new apartment buildings accessible to people with disabilities,” Bharara said.
“When the government filed this lawsuit, Durst claimed that it should not be held responsible for inaccessible conditions at The Helena and other rental buildings – despite the fact that Durst’s own website trumpets its role in developing those buildings,” Bharara continued.
“It was only after the Court rejected Durst’s argument that Durst finally accepted its obligations under the law,” Bharara said. “Today’s settlement with Durst makes clear that real estate developers cannot hide behind opaque corporate structures to evade their obligation to comply with the Fair Housing Act or avoid liability for violating that Act.”
In a statement, Durst note the length of time and money spent on reaching the settlement.
“It took nearly eight years of negotiations and millions of dollars in legal costs by both sides to reach this agreement with DOJ," the company said in a statement. "Despite the Government’s assertions, we did not concede a pattern and practice of violating the FHA in the settlement.”
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Durst agrees to establish procedures to ensure that its ongoing and future development projects, such as the 2,400-unit Halletts Point development in Queens and the 709-unit VIA 57 West development in Manhattan, will comply with the accessibility requirements of the Fair Housing Act.
Durst also agrees to make the two apartment buildings in Manhattan, The Helena and The Epic, more accessible to individuals with disabilities. The settlement also requires Durst to make extensive retrofits at The Helena, and to commit to additional retrofits at The Epic once that building has been inspected, to make these buildings accessible.
Finally, Durst agrees to provide up to $515,000 to compensate aggrieved persons and pay a civil penalty of $55,000.
Under the settlement, Durst agrees that it will retain an FHA compliance consultant for every multi-family housing project it constructs in the next three years to ensure that the building will comply with the FHA’s accessibility requirements.
For example, the FHA consultant will advise Durst on the selection of fixtures and appliances and whether deviating from the architects’ drawings will affect accessibility.
The FHA consultant also will conduct a site visit to identify non-compliant conditions and recommend appropriate solutions prior to the completion of construction
In addition, Durst agrees to institute policies and training to ensure that its own employees and agents will comply with the FHA’s accessibility requirements.
According to Bharara’s office, “aggrieved individuals” may be entitled to monetary compensation from the fund created as part of this settlement.
Aggrieved individuals may include those who were:
- Injured by a lack of accessible features at The Helena, The Epic, or the other properties constructed by Durst
- Discouraged from living at The Helena, The Epic, or the other properties constructed by Durst because of the lack of accessible features
- Required to pay to have an apartment at The Helena, The Epic, or the other properties constructed by Durst made accessible
- Prevented from having visitors because of a lack of accessible features at The Helena, The Epic, or the other properties constructed by Durst
- Otherwise injured or discriminated against on the basis of disability as a result of the design or construction of The Helena, The Epic, or the other properties constructed by Durst