The group is expanding to Martin County. To date, it has sued 50-plus commercial owners and, in the latest lawsuit, alleges an owner won’t accept Sec. 8 vouchers.
JENSEN BEACH, Fla. – An anti-housing discrimination organization that’s sued nearly 50 commercial property owners in Florida is widening its scope to include Martin County with a federal lawsuit filed against a company that owns dozens of units in Portofino at Jensen Beach, a condominium community.
The Florida Fair Housing Alliance, a Miami-based non-profit organization with a stated mission to “end discrimination in housing,” on Jan. 28 filed a lawsuit against Portofino Jensen Beach LLC that accuses the company of violating the federal Fair Housing Act by refusing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers, once known as Section 8 payment vouchers.
Housing choice vouchers allow very low-income families to choose and lease or purchase safe, decent, and affordable privately-owned rental housing, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Property records show Portofino Jensen Beach LLC owns 155 units in the private 384-unit community near Northwest Golden Rod Road and U.S. 1.
The company’s Miami attorney, Stuart I. Grossman, flatly rejected the Housing Alliance’s discrimination claims.
“Portofino strenuously denies the allegations and will vigorously defend the fairytales set forth in the lawsuit,” Grossman said via email.
Litany of litigation
After filing 16 federal housing discrimination lawsuits and another 30 similar complaints in state court throughout Central and South Florida, it’s the first time the Housing Alliance has sued a property owner in Martin County or the Treasure Coast, according to a review of court records.
“There’s an abundance of discrimination going on and millions of people being locked out of equitable opportunity and a chance to succeed in life,” said Housing Alliance founder and CEO Ryan Turizo, 39, of North Miami Beach. Turizo, who was released from state prison in 2015, launched his anti-housing discrimination cause, he said, after running into barriers as a felon who served 10 years for nonviolent felonies including grand theft, burglary, and drug charges.
“It’s become a mission of mine, mostly because of my barrier,” he said. “But also because of my love for the people that are underserved and locked out, so to speak.”
An experienced litigator, court records show Turizo is listed as the plaintiff in at least 39 federal lawsuits, with some involving housing discrimination claims related to his criminal record.
Starting in early 2020, he focused dozens of the Housing Alliance’s initial lawsuits fighting against landlords accused of refusing to rent to felons. Some suits show Turizo acted as the organization’s tester to call rental properties asking if a felon would be approved as a renter.
Records show rental property owners have been sued in Tampa, Clearwater, Winter Park, Orlando, Melbourne, Wellington, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
In the past year, lawsuits filed by the Housing Alliance, and its Fort Lauderdale attorney Jibreal Hindi, broadened to include claims against property owners accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by telling testers who call about available rental units that Section 8 payment vouchers aren’t accepted. The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when renting or buying a home or seeking housing assistance. The Act prohibits discrimination in housing because of race, color, religion, sex, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin.
In the Portofino complaint, the Housing Alliance claims that when a volunteer tester called Jan. 10 to inquire about renting a unit, an agent said a two-bedroom unit was available. When the tester asked if Portofino accepted Section 8 payment vouchers, the agent “responded that it did not.”
Suing under what Turizo and Hindi called a “disparate-impact theory,” the lawsuit argued that the alleged voucher refusal “perpetuate the harms of residential segregation and impose disproportionate injuries on Florida’s low-income African-American households.”
“Defendant’s refusal to accept Housing Choice Vouchers is the equivalent of, and has the same effect as, refusing to rent to African-Americans,” the suit claimed.
Hindi said under the disparate impact theory – which is cited in numerous Housing Alliance lawsuits – “even if a protected class is not specifically listed in the Fair Housing Act, you could create a protected class if you can show that minorities are being disproportionately affected by certain policies.”
In this instance, Hindi said, “the policy is no Section 8, and we can easily show that when such a policy is implemented, it is disproportionately impacting minorities.”
To that end, the Portofino suit noted that Florida has an estimated 7.7 million households, comprised of about 15.8% Black and 79% white or non-Hispanic.
An estimated 198,481 households in Florida currently participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program,” the suit stated, with Black households accounting for 52% of program participants.
“In Florida, African-American households are overrepresented in the households participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program,” the suit argued.
Hindi acknowledged that before suing Portofino, the Housing Alliance had not received discrimination complaints and the lawsuit was filed after making a single call to a rental agent.
“There only need be one test. I mean, if you go to McDonald’s and there’s a policy that says ‘don’t spit in people’s food’ and if somebody spits in your food, I highly doubt that somebody is going to say, ‘it only happened once,’” Hindi said. “I guarantee you, had we not filed suit, if somebody else called in the next day, the same answer would apply.”
Martin County Human Services, which oversees the county’s housing assistance program, has no record in the past five years of any complaints alleging discrimination based on denial of Section 8 payment vouchers, said Michelle Miller, Human Services Administrator.
The suit against Portofino seeks money damages, attorney fees and an injunction to prevent the company “from engaging in discrimination practices, such as the refusal to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.” It also wants a judge to compel Porofino’s staff “to participate in housing discrimination training.”
Attorneys defending property owners against Housing Alliance lawsuits have accused Turizo and the organization of operating “a sham,” in part by filing boilerplate lawsuits to generate settlement money. Portofino lawyer Grossman, declined to elaborate, but suggested “a simple Google search will show the motives behind this sanctionable lawsuit.”
Miami Attorney Juan Martinez, who represents Waterview At Coconut Creek Apartments in a pending state complaint, was more succinct. The Housing Alliance’s strategy, Martinez argued in court papers, “is to bring these claims in the hopes of extracting an early settlement and with no genuine expectation that (the Housing Alliance) will actually prevail on the merits.”
A judge in November denied Waterview’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit, records show.
Turizo declined to discuss Housing Alliance settlement finances or how much he earns from his work as CEO.
“It’s very, very meager,” he said. “After taxes … I would make more money at McDonald’s.”
Publicly available IRS records for the Housing Alliance don’t list any assets and show the 501(C)(3) non-profit has no more than $50,000 in gross receipts, according to 990-N forms filed in 2020.
Hindi and Turizo also pushed back on criticism that they’re “serial litigators” pressuring property owners to pay up or face a legal fight.
“They’re going to say extortion, they’re going to say this and that, but I don’t care what they call it, they’re violating the law,” Hindi said. He insisted through their efforts, more than 500 apartment communities in Florida have had to change their policies and “allow minorities an equal playing field in their choice of housing.”
“Even if the judge gave us $1 in damages and said that they have to stop what they’re doing, we would be extraordinarily happy with it,” Hindi said.
© 2022 Journal Media Group Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast.
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