Stacie B. Royster
WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a fairness hearing held on August 28th in the case of Vargas v. Smithtown, Federal District Judge Joanna Seybert approved a settlement agreement resolving a lawsuit that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights brought against the Town of Smithtown, New York on behalf of several individual plaintiffs and a class of similarly situated individuals. The complaint alleged that the town’s use of a residency preference in administering its federal Section 8 Housing Voucher Program violated the federal Fair Housing Act and related civil rights statutes.
The settlement agreement includes a provision requiring the town to deposit $925,000 in a fund (“Settlement Fund”) from which monetary damages will be distributed to the four individual plaintiffs who represent the class. These named claimants will also be immediately eligible to receive the next available housing vouchers. Class members, who include African-American and Hispanic persons who previously applied for Section 8 vouchers and were placed on 2002 or 2006 waitlists, but were or would have been bypassed because they did not live nor work in Smithtown, will also be eligible for monetary damages from the Settlement Fund and, furthermore, will be given priority on the Section 8 waitlist. While entering into this settlement, Smithtown continued to deny it had violated the law.
Additionally, the agreement includes a provision that attorneys’ fees and costs of $200,000 will be paid from the Settlement Fund. To the extent funds remain after all efforts to locate and compensate members of the class have been completed, they will be donated to organizations with a mission to further promote fair housing within Suffolk County. The agreement also provides that prior applicants who were not residents of Smithtown, were placed on the 2002 or 2006 waitlist, and were passed over because of the residency preference will be placed at the top of the existing wait list and will receive full consideration for the next available vouchers.
“This is a significant settlement for Section 8 programs in which a residential preference combined with regional demographics may have a disparate impact upon minority, non-resident applicants for a Section 8 Housing Voucher Program,” said Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Executive Director Barbara R. Arnwine. “It is incumbent upon all housing agencies to implement their Section 8 programs in a manner that complies with all fair housing laws.”
The Lawyers’ Committee first became involved in this matter in October, 2005 when the Fair Housing Justice Center, a New York fair housing organization, initiated an investigation of the Smithtown Section 8 Housing Voucher Program and contacted the Lawyers’ Committee to seek assistance in the investigation. Following the investigation, the lawsuit was filed by the Lawyers’ Committee in December of 2007 on behalf of a class of African-American and Hispanic persons who unsuccessfully sought federal housing assistance vouchers from Smithtown.
Under federal law, localities that are administering a Section 8 Housing Voucher Program are permitted to employ a residency preference as long as the preference does not violate the Fair Housing Act. Under the settlement, after all non-resident persons who had applied in 2002 and 2006 have received priority for Section 8 vouchers, Smithtown may use a residency preference by which, vouchers are awarded to eligible applicants in the order they appear on the Section 8 waitlist on a “one resident” to “one non-resident” basis. This preference is permitted because, given the present composition of the waiting list, this formula fairly allocates Section 8 vouchers in a manner that promotes racial equity in the distribution of such vouchers. Because the racial composition of the waitlist may change over time, the Town will examine and adjust the residency preference anytime the waiting list is opened in the future to insure that the residency preference will not result in a selection rate for minority applicants that is less than four-fifths of what the selection rate for African-American and Hispanic applicants would be without consideration of a residency preference, a formula that other courts have deemed acceptable.
It is anticipated that in the near future, potential Class members will be mailed forms with which to submit a claim and will have until February 22, 2010 to do so. Berdon Claims Administration LLC is serving as the Court-appointed Claims Administrator on a pro bono basis. Individuals who believe that they are eligible should send their claim forms to Smithtown Housing Discrimination Litigation, c/o Berdon Claims Administration LLC, P.O. Box 9014, Jericho, NY 11753-8914. More information concerning the claims process will be posted on the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ website at The Fair Housing and Community Development Project and on Berdon’s Web site at www.berdonclaims.com.
The plaintiffs were represented pro bono by the Lawyers’ Committee and individual lawyers who have committed to provide their services on this matter pro bono publico.