NEW YORK CITY—In another legal blow to the development community here, the Durst Organization has been hit with a lawsuit from the US Attorney’s office that asserts the company has “engaged in a pattern and practice of developing rental apartment buildings that are inaccessible to persons with disabilities.”
In particular, the complaint centers around the Helena, a 595-unit multifamily building which Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, contends was designed and constructed in violation of the design and construction provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act. The building also does not meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the suit, which also names Durst affiliate, the Helena Associates, LLC and architect FXFOWLE Architects.
The suit urges Durst to amend numerous elements of the Helena, at 601 W. 57th St., as well as 855 Ave. of the Americas “and associated places of public accommodation,” and asks for monetary damages for the violations to be paid by the defendants.
A similar complaint was filed last month against the Related Cos. In a statement announcing the Durst complaint, Bharara says, “This is the eighth lawsuit we have filed in recent years to address the failure of real estate developers in New York City to comply with the law. Developers and architects who show an unwillingness to design and construct housing that complies with the law can no longer seek to evade the consequences of their actions.”
The issue keeps arising because of a gulf of understanding, it seems, between those who believe developers who comply with local building codes are in the clear and those who say the builders must meet federal standards. Says a press representative of Durst, “For the last 23 years, all multi-family residential construction in New York City has conformed to the Federal Fair Housing Act by adhering to the city’s building code which satisfies HUD guidelines. DOJ is now alleging that New York’s code is deficient; this impacts 175,000 units of housing built since 1991 and creates chaos for the development of new units. In addition, in the eight years since the Helena opened, Durst has not received a single complaint from a resident regarding accessibility.”
The aforementioned HUD guidelines stipulate that, in essence, if a state or local government has set forth a number of disability access regulations and a developer adheres to those rules, the project provides sufficient accessibility.
In fact, GlobeSt.com has obtained a letter that the NYC Dept. of Law sent to the US Attorney as far back as 2008 which says, in part, “in the opinion of the city of New York, compliance with New York City’s Local Law 58 of 1987 satisfies the Fair Housing Act requirement.”
Previously addressing the issue in the Wall Street Journal, REBNY president Steven Spinola says, “Obviously our members have always looked to accommodate everyone, including people of disability, and always believed they followed the law established by the City of New York. “
Durst declined to make further comment while FXFOWLE and the US Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.