This month in real estate history

A look back at some of New York's biggest real estate stories

1983: NAACP accuses Helmsley-Spear of bias

The NAACP claimed residential and commercial landlord Helmsley-Spear was discriminating against black apartment applicants in a housing development in Queens 29 years ago this month.

The civil rights group filed the class-action suit in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, accusing Harry Helmsley’s firm, one of the largest real estate companies in the city, of discriminating against blacks who applied to live in the 3,200-unit Fresh Meadows Apartments.

The suit claimed the development — which was built in the late 1940s for returning World War II veterans — passed over black applicants on waiting lists, showed them inferior apartments and did not tell them when apartments became available.

An attorney for Helmsley-Spear at the time said the accusations were “preposterous.”

According to news accounts, racial bias was common in New York City at the time and led to public service advertisements, such as one featuring the popular actor Mr. T the following year raising awareness about housing discrimination.

Helmsley-Spear did not admit guilt in connection with the class-action suit, but within six months it signed a consent order agreeing to offer vacant apartments to “qualified black applicants whose applications are still on file.” Helmsley died in 1997.


1962: City agency formed to relocate NYers

The city created a new agency called the Department of Relocation to assist an estimated 120,000 New Yorkers who were expected to be forced out of their homes by large public development projects 50 years ago this month.

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Mayor Robert Wagner created the new department because of the anticipated increase in the number of families that would be displaced by planned urban renewal projects in the coming years. Before the new agency was created, a division with the now-defunct Department of Real Estate performed the same relocation work.

The large public projects that the Wagner administration dealt with included new housing for the West Side Urban Renewal Project between 87th and 89th streets and Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue, where approximately 6,000 individuals lived.

Bronx politician Herman Badillo was tapped as the first commissioner of the new agency — a job he held until 1965. He later rose to become Bronx borough president.

In 1967, the Department of Relocation was folded into the then-new agency known as the Housing and Development Administration. The task of moving people and businesses is now known as the Division of Relocation Operations and is a much diminished entity within the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.


1936: West Side rezoning ups residential space

In one of the largest acts of urban planning carried out between the two World Wars, the city approved a rezoning of the West Side 76 years ago this month. The move sharply increased the amount of space reserved for residential buildings in the area.

The city’s Board of Estimate approved the plan, which upped the amount of residential area to 22 percent of the land — from 6 percent — between 14th and 59th streets and Seventh and 10th avenues. The amount of unrestricted land fell from 66 percent to 50 percent.

Proponents of the rezoning said the increased industrial activity on the West Side was creating demand for apartments.

The majority of the new residential space was created from 14th to 23rd streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues and from 44th to 57th streets between Eighth and 10th avenues.

The land west of 10th Avenue was not affected by the law. The change in zoning followed a four-year study showing a demand for residential space in the 544 city blocks.