Q: My partner and I submitted an application to buy a co-op in Dumbo, but the board rejected us despite our solid financials and a sterling board package. Our broker told us it was because of our dogs, even though the co-op is pet friendly and we submitted numerous character references for the dogs. I suspect a different reason: The day before the rejection, we were asked to submit a family photo. I think they rejected us because I am a person of color and covered in tattoos. What recourse do we have?
A: A co-op board can reject an applicant for any reason, or no reason, so long as the reason is not discriminatory or an act of self-dealing on the part of a board member. But since the board is not required to disclose why it rejected your application, you’ll be hard pressed to show that the decision violated fair housing rules.
“Discrimination is hard to prove — not impossible but difficult to prove — unless you have witnesses willing to testify or some sort of documentary evidence,” said Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer and partner at the Manhattan law firm Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas.
Start by filing a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, as housing discrimination is covered by the city’s human rights law. You could also file a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights. Both agencies would investigate your claim, and you could be awarded damages. Your next step would be to call a lawyer and file a case on your own. The board would be required to disclose its reasoning in the suit, and if you won, you could be awarded damages. However, litigation is long and expensive, with no clear path to victory.
The good news is, change may be on the horizon. Westchester recently passed a law requiring co-ops to disclose their reasoning for rejecting buyers, and to file the information with the county Human Rights Commission. Boards also must explain minimum financial requirements to prospective buyers. The State Senate is considering similar legislation, with a bill in committee that would mandate “a uniform processes for considering applications” and set limits for how long a board can take to consider an application.
For now, though, your options are limited to how far you are willing to pursue this issue.