Highland Mills, NY – A lawsuit filed against a private community in the Kiryas Joel area may be just the tip of the iceberg, with Hasidic families alleging that they are being subjected to discrimination and harassment in their quest to find suitable housing.
The $7.5 million federal lawsuit brought by 11 Hasidic Jews charges that they were enveloped by a climate of hostility created by the Highland Lake Estates’ homeowners’ association, its board members and its property manager because of their religion.
The plaintiffs include residents of the Highland Mills development, a pair of Hasidic real estate brokers and a potential buyer who was warned away from Highland Lake Estates.
“We view there to be a pervasive and pernicious attempt to limit the occupancy and burden the occupancy of members of a particular religious group, which to me is contrary to basic, state federal and constitutional provisions,” attorney Michael Sussman, who represents the plaintiffs, told VIN News. “That has been acted out in a number of ways to make people feel unwelcome.”
Entire lawsuit documents here PDF
According to the 19 page complaint filed on May 24th in United States District Court in White Plains, Yoel and Fraida Fried became the first Hasidic residents of Highland Lake Estates in August 2016 and have since been followed by approximately a dozen others.
The Frieds reported that on their first night in Highland Lake Estates, members of the homeowner’s association parked a car in front of their home at midnight, shining the vehicle’s headlights into the house for 20 minutes and calling Yoel Fried on his cell phone to ask if he had read the community’s by laws.
Other acts of intimidation followed, according to the complaint. Resident Aharon Ostreicher woke up the morning after moving into Highland Lake Estates to find eggs thrown against his house, with pickles and potato chips strewn on and around his front porch a day later.
The defendants also allegedly prevented school buses, delivery trucks and car services serving Hasidic residents from entering the development, outlawed in-home prayer services and declared Sundays a “Home and Family Day of Tranquility,” an act perceived to be aimed at preventing real estate agents from showing homes to Hasidic families on their busiest day of the week.
Homeowner’s association vice president Christopher Perrino reportedly stalked Hasidim who bought or sought to purchase homes in the development, telling plaintiff Israel Ostreicher to leave, saying “I’m the law.”
When Ostreicher told Perrino that he was buying a house in Highland Lake Estates, Perrino replied “I know you guys are starting to come in here. You to abide by the by-laws. You need to read the by-laws.”
Bans against religious displays appear to be enforced only for Hasidic residents, charged Sussmans.
Residents were permitted to display large outdoor Christmas and Halloween displays, while eruvs were banned and sukkahs were order dismantled. And two Hasidic real estate agents found themselves harassed on multiple occasions, which included being wrongfully confronted by police for criminal trespass, being subjected to racial slurs and having their vehicle surrounded by area residents.
The situation is demonstrative of a catch-22 situation, observed Sussman. Hasidim are criticized for living in segregated communities, but subjected to discrimination when they try to move elsewhere.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Sussman. “You can’t scream and yell about Kiryas Joel and Palm Tree and say no to people trying to exercise broader housing choices.”
Sussman said that the behaviors exhibited in Highland Lake Estates are also taking place in other areas in Orange and Rockland counties, with elected officials doing nothing to stem what he termed the “unjustified and self-fulfilling hysteria.”
He noted that a housing project in Chester had been approved and was under construction when one town official said that it would be marketed to Hasidic clientele, prompting local officials to begin questioning whether the municipal sewer capacity could accommodate the housing. The fact that that concern only arose after the possibility of Hasidic residents moving in seemed highly suspicious, said Sussman, who noted that some in government were succumbing to a mob mentality instead of enforcing the law.
“This is all a capitulation to fear and bigotry,” said Sussman. “Public officials have to stand for something else.”