Rental firm said to bar Indian tenant
John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file 2013
The state attorney general’s office is investigating an allegation that a property management company owned by Anwar N. Faisal, the controversial Boston landlord, refused to rent an apartment to a Northeastern University graduate student because she was from India.
The investigation began shortly after the Boston Fair Housing Commission found probable cause in June that Alpha Management Corp. discriminated against the Northeastern student last summer.
The commission carried out its own inquiry and corroborated the allegation by sending three young people to pose as customers interested in leasing apartments managed by Alpha, according to city officials. Two white people were offered apartments, but one of Indian descent was told no unit was available.
“We see this as a very big deal,” said Janine Anzalota, deputy director of Boston’s Office of Fair Housing and Equity. The commission investigates 40 to 50 claims of housing discrimination each year, she said.
A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley said her office plans to “thoroughly investigate the case and take appropriate action.”
A Globe Spotlight Team report about poorly maintained and overcrowded off-campus student housing identified Faisal as among the most complained-about landlords of college students in Boston. The report, published in May, said he has received hundreds of code enforcement tickets and been a defendant in numerous lawsuits and criminal complaints.
Faisal’s lawyer, Joshua Krefetz of Boston, denied that Alpha engaged in discrimination. “Anwar rents to a more diverse clientele than any other landlord in Boston, and we look forward to clearing his name of this absurd accusation in a court of law,’’ the lawyer wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
Krefetz said he gave the commission “proof of Alpha’s current Indian and South Asian tenants, which they disregarded,’’ he wrote. The list, he said, included at least 30 tenants whom he thought came from that region.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the city considered that information before making its determination.
The Fair Housing Commission started its inquiry after the family of Neha Ramdeo, a 22-year-old information assurance graduate student at Northeastern,complained that Alpha refused to accept her application and deposit for a $1,950-a-month apartment in the Fenway because Ramdeo is Indian.
Ramdeo’s real estate agent, Youssef Benkirane, of NextGen Realty, confirmed to the Globe that one of the top managers at Alpha, Munther Faisal, refused to rent the unit to Ramdeo because of her national origin. Faisal told Benkirane that Indian students too often let friends who aren’t on the lease live with them, the rental agent said.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m not going to take those people, because they’re from India. They over-occupy the unit,’ ” recalled Benkirane, 27. “I was amazed,” added Benkirane, who said he came to Massachusetts from Morocco in 2006 as an international student. “It was my first time dealing with Alpha Management.”
Ramdeo, who moved to Boston in August, told the Globe she was appalled by the way her family was treated.
“I don’t know the quality of the buildings [Anwar Faisal] is providing, but discrimination is gross,” said Ramdeo, whose sister and brother-in-law had picked the apartment for her as she prepared to leave India. “You cannot do that.”
After Benkirane relayed the rejection to Ramdeo’s sister and brother-in-law, the couple called Alpha, investigators said. Alpha told them that the apartment and four others they had seen at 49 Symphony Road were no longer available.
“We were shocked and decided to report it,’’ said Ramdeo’s sister, Ritu Vyas, of New York.
Munther Faisal, who oversees leasing for the family-run business, denied the allegations in an affidavit he filed with the city. Munther Faisal is a nephew of Anwar Faisal, according to a deposition Anwar Faisal gave in an unrelated 2012 suit.
Ramdeo’s family called the commission, which investigates housing discrimination complaints with help from Suffolk University Law School. The law school started a federally funded housing discrimination testing program in September 2012 and has carried out about 130 tests in Greater Boston, according to William Berman, the professor who runs the program.
The tests are undertaken by law students and community volunteers. To make sure the results aren’t skewed, Berman said, the testers are not told why they were chosen or what the underlying allegations were. About two weeks after Ramdeo’s rejection, three volunteers roughly the same age as Ramdeo applied for apartments at 49 Symphony Road, the Faisal-owned building, according to investigators.
Benkirane, the rental agent who had worked with Ramdeo’s family, showed several units to two white volunteers, including apartments that Ramdeo’s sister and brother-in-law had viewed, investigators said.
The real estate agent told a third volunteer, who is of Indian descent, on the phone that an apartment was available. But after meeting the young man later that day, Benkirane said the unit had been rented, according to the commission.
The commission found probable cause that Alpha “engaged in discriminatory refusal to rent based on national origin.” The commission also found probable cause that Benkirane made discriminatory remarks by relaying Alpha’s alleged refusal to lease to Ramdeo. The attorney general’s office is also investigating the allegations against Benkirane.
Benkirane said he had only been licensed as a real estate broker for six months and naively relayed Faisal’s message to Ramdeo’s family.
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Benkirane, who added that he lost a $1,000 commission when the deal fell through.
As for telling the young man from India that no apartment was available in the tests arranged by Suffolk Law School, Benkirane said he knew Alpha wouldn’t rent the apartment to him given what Munther Faisal had allegedly said about Indians. The commission also investigated NextGen’s role in the case, but the Allston-based company settled the matter in the spring without admitting any wrongdoing, according to city records.
NextGen agreed to pay the Ramdeo family $650 to cover expenses related to the investigation. It also agreed under its settlement with the city to post the city’s policy banning discrimination in housing on the company’s website, and to require all NextGen employees and contractors to undergo training in fair housing.
Anwar Faisal’s lawyer, Krefetz, said his client refused to settle the matter because he rejects the accusation and said the real estate agent involved in the testing did not work for Alpha or on behalf of Alpha.
“Anwar would not settle this case for even $650, out of principle, because he did nothing wrong,’’ the lawyer wrote in an e-mail.
Faisal, a Palestinian immigrant who was born in the Gaza Strip, has often complained about discrimination — directed against himself. In public hearings and elsewhere, he has said he has been treated harshly by authorities because of his heritage.
The discrimination complaint by Ramdeo’s family with the commission was the first against Alpha since the agency began keeping electronic records a decade ago, said Melina Schuler, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Since Jan. 1, 2013, the commission has found probable cause of housing discrimination 15 times, Schuler said. In eight of those cases, the city scheduled an administrative hearing before a commissioner with the authority to impose a fine of up to $10,000 for a violation of housing laws.
In the seven remaining cases, the people who complained of discrimination, or those accused of it, exercised their right to ask the attorney general to investigate the findings, Schuler said.
Krefetz said he asked for the attorney general to take over the matter in this instance because “I prefer the public and transparent courtroom process.”
Coakley has a broad range of options, including filing a lawsuit, negotiating a settlement, or dismissing the matter. The attorney general has agreed with Krefetz to decide by Oct. 1 whether to file suit.
The allegation of discrimination concerns a student attending one of the more diverse schools in the United States; Northeastern is also one of Faisal’s biggest customers. The university has paid Faisal millions over the past decade to house undergraduate students that it can’t accommodate in campus dormitories. Many Northeastern students rent directly from Faisal, as Ramdeo tried to do.
International students make up 15 percent of the undergraduates at Northeastern, according to a recent US News & World Report survey.
Following the Spotlight Team report, Northeastern has said it is reviewing how Faisal manages his buildings, where he housed more than 300 students last fall through a leasing agreement with the university. The school says the review will be completed in the fall, and that its business relationship with Faisal may be terminated if it is unsatisfied with the quality of his apartments.
Renata Nyul, a spokeswoman for Northeastern, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the discrimination case, “but we sincerely hope these allegations are unfounded.”
“We oppose discrimination in all its forms and are proud that Northeastern students come from more than 100 countries around the world,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Since the Spotlight Team report, a City Council committee on housing has held two public hearings about the conditions in Faisal’s buildings and Alpha’s relationship with Northeastern.
City Councilor Josh Zakim, who is leading the investigation, said the discrimination allegation was appalling and “just another example of Mr. Faisal’s and Alpha Management’s thumbing their nose at the city and at their fellow citizens.’’
Zakim said he will ask the committee soon to issue a subpoena to Faisal, who has declined requests to appear before the panel. Zakim also said he wants Northeastern to provide preliminary findings of its review of its business relationship with Alpha. “I think they’ve had enough time to get their preliminary results,” he said.
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