May 23, 2007
Gay Couple Sues Landlord for Discrimination
Brooklyn Case Draws Support for Harassment Laws
BROOKLYN — A Brooklyn couple is suing their landlord for discrimination, claiming he harassed, threatened and intimidated them because they are gay. Their case has drawn support from local political leaders and advocates who want to increase legal protections for tenants in housing court. Among other things, the tenants claim Juan Vasquez and his family members have threatened to rape them, tried to run them over with a car and attacked them with a large garbage can.
"Nobody deserves to be discriminated against like Jessica and I were, solely because of our sexual orientation," said (Make the Road by Walking member) Betsy Ortiz, 42. She moved into Vasquez's apartment at 61 Harman St. in July 1996, with her partner, Jessica Marrero, 23, and their three-year-old daughter, Alissa.
The couple first sued in Brooklyn Housing Court, where Judge Cheryl Gonzalez found a dozen housing code violations, including rats, cockroaches and worms, and ordered repairs to be made within 24 hours. But there is no recourse in housing court to stop harassment.
"What we've been finding is that harassment is rapidly growing, and is really becoming a citywide issue," said Benjamin Dolchin, a spokesman for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD). The citywide coalition of neighborhood groups advocates for local legislation that would enable housing courts to address tenant harassment.
The lawyer who represented Ortiz and Marrero in housing court, Geoff Davenport, of Make the Road By Walking, said their discrimination case was too complicated for his nonprofit organization to handle on its own. Davenport sought pro bono help from the large, white-shoe law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.
Paul, Weiss lawyers lead by Roberta Kaplan filed the civil lawsuit under city and state human rights laws. In addition to human rights violations, the tenants are seeking damages for assault, battery and emotional distress.
A criminal complaint has also been filed against Vasquez's son, Javier Vasquez, for menacing, harassment, criminal contempt and reckless endangerment. In April, he allegedly violated an order of protection issued by Judge William Garnett.
Neither Juan Vasquez nor his attorney could be reached for comment late yesterday afternoon.
Outside Brooklyn Supreme Court yesterday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the city council is working on legislation that would enable tenants to sue for harassment in housing court.
"My only regret is that this law isn't already in place, so that Betsy Ortiz and Jessica Marrero would have had the protection they needed before this ordeal began," Quinn said.
Quinn was joined yesterday by City Council Members Diana Reyna, Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez. After months of looking for a new apartment, Ortiz, Marrero and Alissa found a new place to live earlier this month.
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