The city’s Commission on Human Rights has found that an Upper West Side development that bars rent-regulated tenants from accessing its fitness facility could be discriminating against those tenants because of their age.
Jean Green Dorsey, a tenant leader at Stonehenge Village on West 96th and 97th streets, filed papers with the commission last April alleging her landlord’s policy of allowing only market-rate tenants to use the fitness facility was discriminatory against seniors. The filing named Stonehenge Village and parent company Stonehenge Partners, which is owned by Ofer Yardei and Joel Seiden, as respondents. (According to real estate website The Real Deal, Seiden sold his stake in the company to SL Green Realty in December.)
Dorsey’s age-discrimination argument got traction with Public Advocate Letitia James, who filed a separate brief with the commission last July in support of Dorsey’s claim. Dorsey’s lawyer, Marjorie Mesidor, with the law firm Phillips and Associates, argued that because rent-regulated tenants tend to be older, the gym policy amounts to discrimination based on age.
In Mesidor’s filing with the commission, she cited a New York University Furman Center study from last year that said in Manhattan, rent-stabilized tenants are almost five times more likely to be over age 65 than market rate tenants.
According to court papers, 66 percent of the rent-regulated tenants at Stonehenge Village are over age 65, while only five percent of market-rate tenants meet or exceed that age. Stonehenge Village, which is made up of three buildings on 97th Street and 96th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Columbus Avenue, has about 419 units, 64 percent of which are occupied by rent-regulated tenants.
Mesidor argued Stonehenge’s “exclusionary [gym] policy is discriminatory and prohibited under NYC Human Rights Law because it has a disparate impact upon the rent-regulated tenants, including [Dorsey], due to their age.”
Attorneys for Stonehenge countered that the 1,000-square-foot gym is meant to attract potential market-rate tenants and is an amenity offered solely on the basis of housing status, not age.
But according to the Commission on Human Rights, the rent-regulated age analysis argument won the day. In its finding, dated March 27, the commission said, “There is probable cause to believe that [Stonehenge’s] policy regarding access to an exercise room in its housing accommodation results in a disparate impact upon [Dorsey] and other rent-regulated tenants based upon their age.”
An attorney for Stonehenge Partners, Jerrold Goldberg, declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.
Mesidor told the Spirit that Stonehenge can either appeal the commission’s finding, create a conciliatory agreement allowing the rent-regulated tenants access to the gym, or take their chances at a public hearing in hopes they’ll be vindicated.
“I think they thought this case would not have a probable cause finding,” said Mesidor. “I think they were surprised at that.”
Mesidor thinks Stonehenge will either allow rent-regulated tenants access to the gym, perhaps with a fee, or plead their case at the public hearing.
“It wouldn’t make sense for them to appeal the probable cause finding,” said Mesidor. “It would be a waste of time because it’s a preliminary finding.”
But could the commission’s finding have implications for other residential buildings that bar rent-regulated tenants from using certain amenities?
“Absolutely,” said Mesidor. “You have to understand that rent-stabilized clients tend to belong to a particular demographic of being older and minorities.”
Mesidor’s strategy was to argue that the gym policy at Stonehenge Village isolated a particular segment of the population, one that has civil rights protections, and could lay the groundwork for cases against similar policies in other buildings throughout the city.
“Because they’re isolating this population, which overwhelmingly is representative of the elderly and minorities as a whole, they’re implicitly discriminating against them,” said Mesidor.
For Dorsey, the commission’s finding vindicates her sense that, at the root of it all, people who live together in a building should not have unequal access to that building’s amenities.
“I haven’t yet had one market rate tenant even hint that they should be the only ones to use the gym,” said Dorsey. “I also know of market-rate tenants who won’t use the gym on principle because of this.”
Dorsey also said that children of market-rate tenants and children of rent-regulated tenants play together in the same activities organized by Stonehenge, and that there’s a general sense of camaraderie amongst all in the development, regardless of housing status.
“One of the things that’s important to us and important to me is that housing is more than just a place to live,” said Dorsey. “We in fact have a viable community. Part of that is whatever is available, we can all share it. We have camaraderie.”
But fighting for access to the gym isn’t just a matter of principle.
“There’s somebody here that’s going to teach Zumba classes every week in the early afternoon,” said Dorsey, age 75. “And I’m looking forward to it.”