Queens housing discrimination case heads to federal court

By Candace Taylor | August 27, 2009 03:35PM

Housing advocates said they will seek punitive damages in federal district court against a Queens landlord who allegedly refused to rent to African-Americans.

Vyacheslav Uvaydov, the owner of a house at 71-04 171st Street in Fresh Meadows, allegedly told a tester posing as a potential renter that “he lived in a white neighborhood and there would be complaints if he rented to a black person,” according to a charge of discrimination issued by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development August 17.

HUD found “reasonable cause” that Uvaydov had violated the Fair Housing Act by making discriminatory statements, according to documents issued by the department. The charge comes after an investigation of complaints filed by non-profit organizations National Fair Housing Alliance and Long Island Housing Services, which dispatched a “tester” to contact Uvaydov in August of 2007 after receiving a tip from an anonymous caller who had attempted to rent from him.

Uvaydov, who had placed an ad on Craigslist for a two-bedroom rental apartment, allegedly told the tester over the phone that he had had four or five calls that same day from “people of different colors” and that he could not rent to them.

“He said he couldn’t have black people there,” said Anne Houghtaling, the director of investigations and enforcement at the Washington, D.C.-based housing alliance.

Over the next several weeks, the alliance and housing services organizations conducted additional tests, during which Uvaydov asked about where the testers and their roommates were from, and whether they were Greek, Indian, Italian or Irish, according to the charge.

Uvaydov’s brother Emanuil was also named in the HUD charge, since he is a co-owner of the property. The two purchased 71-04 171st Street for $1.22 million in 2006, according to city documents.

The Uvaydovs’ attorney, Julio Ceasar Galarza, did not respond to calls for comment.

Houghtaling said the two housing groups have elected to have the Uvaydov case heard in federal district court, which means that a judge may award punitive damages in addition to other penalties and fees. The civil rights division of the Department of Justice will handle the case, she said.

If neither party had elected to go to federal district court, the case would have been heard by a federal administrative law judge, who has the power to rule for injunctive relief and civil penalties, but not punitive damages.

Punitive damages tend to be the strongest deterrent to future discriminatory practices, said Shanna Smith, the president and CEO of the housing alliance, which in 2006 filed a complaint with HUD against the Corcoran Group, alleging that agents there had engaged in racial steering and withholding information from African-American clients.

The group said that a Corcoran agent produced a map of Brooklyn and outlined the areas where a white tester should consider living. At the time, Corcoran said it condemned the conduct alleged by the organization and would conduct an internal review of the individual agents involved.

The complaint was withdrawn by the alliance on April 28, 2009, prior to the issuance of a determination by HUD, a department spokesperson said.

Smith said the alliance dropped its complaint because it believed Corcoran had fired the agent in question and instituted anti-discrimination training for its agents.

Earlier this year, Corcoran officially banned more than 200 words that could be viewed as discriminatory from agents’ real estate ads, and instituted new software that makes it impossible for ads to include the banned words, which include “bachelor pad” and “professional.”

Houghtaling said while outright racial discrimination is fairly uncommon, “it’s not as rare as you might think, unfortunately.”

The alliance said there are an estimated 1.76 million instances of discrimination each year against African-Americans looking to rent or buy a home. Houghtaling said many more cases go unreported.