Elizabeth landlord sued for refusing to rent to Muslims

Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Division on Civil Rights announced that the state has submitted for filing a five-count Superior Court complaint against a Union County landlord accused of rejecting a potential tenant because of her Muslim religion.

The complaint against Maple Garden owner William Greda of Elizabeth alleges that, in February of this year, Greda greeted a would-be renter who arrived wearing a khimar by asking if she was a Muslim.

When the apartment seeker — Fatma Farghaly — replied that she was a Muslim, Greda declared that he did not rent to Muslims and asked her to leave.

Several weeks later, the complaint alleges, Greda discriminated again by trying to discourage a female Division on Civil Rights tester who arrived to view an advertised rental unit wearing a headscarf that resembled a khimar and using a Muslim name. According to the complaint Greda told the tester, who is not in reality a Muslim, that the unit was not suitable for her because she is a woman.

State officials did not comment on their boss’ Gov. Chris Christie’s close relationship with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has made religious bigotry and discrimination hallmarks of his campaign.

“The complaint filed today alleges conduct that is blatantly bias-driven and unacceptable under both state and federal law,” said Porrino. “Otherwise eligible renters and buyers have a right to live where they choose and to be treated equally in the pursuit of housing – regardless of their race,  gender, ethnicity or creed. We are committed to ensuring this fundamental right, and to holding accountable any landlord or property seller who tries to deny it.”

“The Division on Civil Rights exists for cases just like this,” said Division Director Craig Sashihara.  “A New Jersey woman is denied housing based not on legitimate non-discriminatory business concerns — like creditworthiness or a past history of not paying rent — but because of her religion.  We look forward to presenting this case to a Union County jury.”

New Jersey’s fair housing law does contain certain exceptions. For example, the law does not apply if a landlord lives in a two-family dwelling and wants to rent out the second unit, or if the landlord lives in a one-family dwelling and wants to rent out some rooms in the home. However, Director Sashihara noted, such exceptions do not apply in the case announced today because of the size of the rental complex involved.

According to the complaint, William Greda and his wife are co-owners of the 17-unit Maple Garden apartment complex at 715 Garden Street in Elizabeth. On February 22 of this year, the couple posted an advertisement on the website craigslist.org soliciting applicants for a one-bedroom apartment at a rental rate of $920 per month.

Farghaly responded to the ad the same day, spoke with Greda, and arranged to view the apartment the following day.

Farghaly told Division investigators that, shortly after Greda escorted her and a friend into the building on Feb. 23, he turned to Farghaly and asked, “Are you Muslim?” When Farghaly said she was,  Greda allegedly replied, “I don’t rent to Muslims” and asked both Farghaly and her companion to leave.

What is described in the complaint as a brief verbal conflict follows, with Farghaly capturing some of the discussion on video with her cell phone. The video shows Farghaly repeatedly asking Greda, “You don’t wanna rent to me because I’m Muslim?” The landlord does not respond.  The video also appears to capture Farghaly and her friend leaving the building as requested — without ever having viewed an apartment — while Greda is seen first picking up a coffee cup from the staircase, then standing in the doorway of the building with the cup as Farghaly and her friend walk away.

Farghaly reported the incident to Elizabeth Police the same day, and police determined it was a civil matter.  She also reported it to the Division on Civil Rights, and followed up the next day by signing a formal complaint.

The Division subsequently launched its own investigation and, approximately three weeks later, a new advertisement appeared on craigslist.com — posted by Maple Garden — for an available apartment.

A female investigator called the advertised telephone number and spoke with Greda, who scheduled an appointment for later that day. At the appointed time, the female investigator – wearing a headscarf similar in appearance to a khimar – arrived at Maple Garden accompanied by a second, male Division on Civil Rights tester.

According to the complaint, the division deemed both testers “suitable to appear as individuals who, like Farghaly, are of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim.”

During the ensuing encounter, Greda allegedly showed the testers a basement-level, studio apartment, but seemed reticent toward the tester wearing a headscarf. According to the complaint, the female tester asked for a rental application at one point and Greda first retrieved one, then declined to give it to her because the apartment “is not good for you.”

When pressed as to why, the landlord allegedly explained that the female tester would have difficulty living there because the basement unit might flood and, as a woman, she would struggle to lift her possessions up on bricks.

After the first two Division testers departed, two more Division testers – two women who did not wear a headscarf or in any way present themselves as Muslim – arrived to view the same basement apartment. In his encounter with them, Greda did not mention any concern about flooding or the apartment’s suitability for a woman.

According to the complaint filed today, Greda and his wife made several unsupported claims as the Division pursued its investigation of Greda’s alleged discriminatory conduct. One of the claims was that would-be tenant Farghaly had told Greda she planned for a total of five people – three adults and two children – to live in the advertised one-bedroom unit she sought to view on Feb. 23.

Greda told investigators that, when he informed Farghaly this was not possible, her male companion assaulted and threatened him. However, the Division’s investigation found that Farghaly was single with no children and planned to live alone. The investigation also found no evidence to support Greda’s claim that he was assaulted or threatened.

Greda contended that Muslim tenants lived at Maple Garden during the investigation , and had done so in the past. However, he was unable to provide the Division supporting evidence or contact information for such tenants.

Submitted for filing in Superior Court in Union County, the complaint alleges that Greda violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination because he: refused to rent to Farghaly wholly or partially on the basis of her religion; made an inquiry of specification as to religion in connection with the rental of real property; made a statement expressing discrimination as to religion, and made a statement expressing discrimination as to gender.

The complaint’s fifth count charges that Greda unlawfully transferred ownership of the rental complex he and his wife co-owned in order to hinder, delay or defraud the State. Specifically, the complaint charges that Greda created a corporate entity called Maple Garden LLC, then transferred ownership of the complex – for $1 – to that entity in April 2016 despite an awareness of the Division on Civil Rights’ investigation. The complaint notes that Maple Garden has been listed for sale within the past several years for $2 million.

Among other things, the State’s complaint seeks damages on behalf of Fatma Farghaly for mental and emotional distress. The complaint also seeks punitive damages for the “willful” nature of Greda’s conduct, statutory civil penalties and attorney’s fees, expenses and costs, as well as relief to redress violations of the LAD through training and monitoring of the rental practices at Maple Garden.

Deputy Attorney General Megan J. Harris and Investigator Charles Washington handled the matter on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.

 


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