NEW YORK CITY—In another legal blow to thedevelopment community here, the Durst Organization has been hitwith a lawsuit from the US Attorney's office that asserts thecompany has “engaged in a pattern and practice of developing rentalapartment buildings that are inaccessible to persons withdisabilities.”

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In particular, the complaint centers around theHelena, a 595-unit multifamily building which Preet Bharara, USAttorney for the Southern District of New York, contends wasdesigned and constructed in violation of the design andconstruction provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act. Thebuilding also does not meet the standards of the Americans withDisabilities Act, according to the suit, which also names Durstaffiliate, the Helena Associates, LLC and architect FXFOWLEArchitects.

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The suit urges Durst to amend numerous elementsof the Helena, at 601 W. 57th St., as well as 855 Ave. of theAmericas “and associated places of public accommodation,” and asksfor monetary damages for the violations to be paid by thedefendants.

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A similar complaint was filed last month against the Related Cos.In a statement announcing the Durst complaint, Bharara says, “Thisis the eighth lawsuit we have filed in recent years to address thefailure of real estate developers in New York City to comply withthe law. Developers and architects who show an unwillingness todesign and construct housing that complies with the law can nolonger seek to evade the consequences of their actions.”

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The issue keeps arising because of a gulf of understanding, itseems, between those who believe developers who comply with localbuilding codes are in the clear and those who say the builders mustmeet federal standards. Says a press representative of Durst, “Forthe last 23 years, all multi-family residential construction in NewYork City has conformed to the Federal Fair Housing Act by adheringto the city's building code which satisfies HUD guidelines. DOJ isnow alleging that New York's code is deficient; this impacts175,000 units of housing built since 1991 and creates chaos for thedevelopment of new units. In addition, in the eight yearssince the Helena opened, Durst has not received a single complaintfrom a resident regarding accessibility.”

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The aforementioned HUD guidelines stipulate that, in essence, ifa state or local government has set forth a number of disabilityaccess regulations and a developer adheres to those rules, theproject provides sufficient accessibility.

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In fact, GlobeSt.com has obtained a letter that the NYC Dept. ofLaw sent to the US Attorney as far back as 2008 which says, inpart, “in the opinion of the city of New York, compliance with NewYork City's Local Law 58 of 1987 satisfies the Fair Housing Actrequirement.”

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Previously addressing the issue in the Wall StreetJournal, REBNY president Steven Spinola says, “Obviously ourmembers have always looked to accommodate everyone, includingpeople of disability, and always believed they followed the lawestablished by the City of New York. "

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Durst declined to make further comment while FXFOWLE and the USAttorney's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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Rayna Katz

Rayna Katz is a seasoned business journalist whose extensive experience includes coverage of the lodging sector, travel and the culinary space. She was most recently content director for a business-to-business publisher, overseeing four publications. While at Meeting News, a travel trade publication, she received a Best Reporting award for a story on meeting cancellations in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.