Originally published by The New York Times
For most of the seven years that Holly Ondaan lived in her Queens apartment building, she rarely clashed with her landlord. That changed when she started having money troubles and stopped paying rent.
The landlord, Diana Lysius, then took an aggressive step: In texts and emails, she started threatening to report Ms. Ondaan, who is from Guyana, to immigration authorities. “Have my money or I’m calling ICES that day period,” read one message, written in all capital letters, according to court documents.
This month, a judge ruled that the landlord had violated the city’s human rights law and recommended she pay $17,000 in a fine and damages. City officials called the decision a rare rebuke that could set a new standard for how immigrant tenants are treated.
Although housing discrimination against immigrants is common, the recommendation from the judge that Ms. Lysius pay a $5,000 fine and $12,000 in damages to her tenant is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, said lawyers for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which pursued the case after Ms. Ondaan filed a complaint. The decision, made on Sept. 12, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
“We believe this not only sets a precedent for protecting potential victims of housing discrimination from being threatened with ICE, but that it also sends a clear message for those who would consider engaging in such discrimination,” said Sapna V. Raj, deputy commissioner of the law enforcement bureau at the commission.
The case also demonstrates the rancor that can arise when landlords of small properties face financial pressures of their own.
Ms. Ondaan, 47, had been living as one of two tenants in a two-family building owned by Ms. Lysius in Jamaica, Queens, when she stopped paying rent in the fall of 2017, according to court papers. Ms. Lysius successfully challenged Ms. Ondaan in housing court for the back rent.
She also began sending hostile messages to Ms. Ondaan in January 2018, according to court documents.
“It was fun and games when you calling DOB,” Ms. Lysius wrote in one message, referring to the city’s Department of Buildings. “Now it’s fun and games calling immigration 12 times a day. They can deport you.”
At the time, Ms. Lysius had fallen behind on her mortgage and was facing foreclosure on the rental property. Her financial situation likely played a large role in her decision to send the hostile messages, Judge John. B. Spooner wrote in his recommendation.
Ms. Lysius also contacted immigration authorities four times seeking information on how to make a complaint if she suspected someone was falsifying information in order to receive a green card. Ms. Ondaan had applied for a green card in February 2018.
The landlord later alleged that Ms. Ondaan was fabricating the allegations against her to receive a green card, a claim that the administrative judge dismissed.
Ms. Ondaan testified that the threatening messages stoked fear that she might be separated from her 23-year-old daughter, a United States citizen, and made her “an emotional wreck.” She had trouble sleeping, lost her appetite and rarely left her apartment, she said in court.
“I was very shocked, I was worried someone would be there waiting when I was coming home off the bus one day, or going to work, I kept looking out the window to see any unmarked cars,” Ms. Ondaan said in an interview on Monday. “My daughter is American born, if anything happened to me she would be all alone here.”
Ms. Ondaan was in the United States on an expired tourist visa when she applied for residency last year, though under New York City law tenants are protected from discrimination based on perceived immigration status, as well as a tenant’s actual status.
In October 2018, three months after she received a green card, Ms. Ondaan left the Queens apartment, owing $14,400 in back rent, Ms. Lysius said in court.
Property records show that Ms. Lysius ceased owning the home at the end of that month.
The recommendation from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which handles cases brought by city agencies, will be reviewed by the city’s commissioner on human rights. The commissioner will then issue a final decision and order, which can be appealed in state court.
Ms. Lysius, who represented herself in court, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
The case was one of 160 inquiries involving housing discrimination and immigration status made to the commission in the 2018 fiscal year — an increase from previous years, Ms. Raj said.
The actual number of housing discrimination incidents against immigrants is likely far higher, though immigrants are often afraid to bring these cases forward, the commission and advocacy groups say.