ELIZABETH, NJ — An Elizabeth landlord is being charged with five counts of discrimination after he allegedly refused to rent an apartment to a Muslim woman.
Fatma Farghaly responded to a Craigslist ad in February for a one-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth posted on the site by the landlord, and was told to come check it out the following day.
But when Farghaly showed up the next day wearing a khimar — a Muslim head covering — the landlord allegedly told her something that shocked her. “I don’t rent to Muslims,” he allegedly told Farghaly.
Now William and Othilia Greda face a five-count discrimination complaint filed by the state’s attorney general.
Attorney General Christopher Porrino and the Division on Civil Rights announced last week that the state has submitted for filing a five-count complaint in Union County Superior Court against the Gredas, who own the Maple Garden apartments in Elizabeth.
Several weeks later, the complaint alleges, Greda discriminated again, this time against a female Division on Civil Rights ‘tester,’ who arrived to view an advertised rental unit dressed in a headscarf that resembled a khimar and using a Muslim name. According to the complaint, Greda told the tester, who is not actually Muslim, that the unit was not suitable for her because she is a woman.
Greda did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
Porrino said in an Oct. 19 press release that the complaint alleges “conduct that is blatantly bias-driven and unacceptable under both state and federal law.”
Porrino asserts that eligible renters and buyers have a right to be treated equally in the pursuit of housing, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or creed. “We are committed to ensuring this fundamental right, and to holding accountable any landlord or property seller who tries to deny it,” said Porrino in the press release.
Craig Sashihara, director of the Division of Civil Rights, said in the press release that the division exists for cases like Farghaly’s. “A New Jersey woman is denied housing based not on legitimate non-discriminatory business concerns — like creditworthiness or a past history of not paying rent — but because of her religion,” said Sashihara. “We look forward to presenting this case to a Union County jury.”
According to the state’s complaint, William Greda and his wife, Othilia, are co-owners of the 17-unit Maple Garden apartment complex, located at 715 Garden St., in Elizabeth.
On Feb. 22, the couple posted an advertisement on Craigslist soliciting applicants for a one-bedroom apartment at a rental rate of $920 per month. Farghaly responded to the craigslist ad the same day, spoke with Greda, and arranged to view the apartment the following day.
According to the complaint, a brief verbal conflict followed, with Farghaly capturing some of the discussion on video with her cell phone. The video shows Farghaly repeatedly asking Greda, “You don’t wanna rent to me because I’m Muslim?” The landlord did not respond. The video also appears to capture Farghaly and her friend leaving the building as requested — without ever having viewed an apartment — while Greda is seen first picking up a coffee cup from the staircase, then standing in the doorway of the building as Farghaly and her friend walk away.
The complaint states that Farghaly reported the incident to Elizabeth Police the same day, and that police determined it was a civil matter. She also reported it to the Division on Civil Rights, and followed up the next day by signing a formal complaint.
The division subsequently launched its own investigation and, approximately three weeks later, a new advertisement appeared on craigslist.com — posted by Maple Garden — for an available apartment.
A female investigator called the advertised telephone number and spoke with Greda, who scheduled an appointment for later that day. At the appointed time, the female investigator — wearing a headscarf similar in appearance to a khimar — arrived at Maple Garden accompanied by a second, male Division on Civil Rights tester.
According to the complaint, the division deemed both testers “suitable to appear as individuals who, like Farghaly, are of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim.”
After Greda told the first two undercover testers that the apartment would not be “suitable” for them — also telling them that there were flooding issues — two more division testers were sent in to view the apartment. This time, the two women wore no headscarves and did not present themselves to be Muslim.
In his encounter with the second pair of division testers, Greda did not mention any concern about flooding or the apartment’s suitability for a woman.
According to the complaint, the Gredas made several unsupported claims as the division pursued its investigation of Greda’s alleged discriminatory conduct. One of the claims was that would-be tenant Farghaly had told Greda she planned for a total of five people — three adults and two children — to live in the advertised one-bedroom unit she sought to view on Feb. 23. Greda told investigators that, when he informed Farghaly this was not possible, her male companion assaulted and threatened him. However, the division’s investigation found that Farghaly was single with no children and planned to live alone. The investigation also found no evidence to support Greda’s claim that he was assaulted or threatened.
Greda contended that Muslim tenants lived at Maple Garden during the investigation, and had done so in the past. According to the complaint, however, Greda was unable to provide the division supporting evidence or contact information for such tenants.
The five discrimination counts included in the complaint allege that Greda violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for refusing to rent to Farghaly on the basis of her religion, inquiring as to Farghaly’s religion, verbally expressing discrimination as to religion, and verbally expressing discrimination as to gender.
The fifth count alleges that Greda unlawfully transferred ownership of the rental complex he and his wife co-owned in order to hinder, delay or defraud the state. “Specifically, the complaint charges that Greda created a corporate entity called Maple Garden LLC, then transferred ownership of the complex — for $1 — to that entity in April, 2016, despite an awareness of the Division on Civil Rights’ investigation,” said the attorney general’s statement. “The complaint notes that Maple Garden has been listed for sale within the past several years for $2 million.”
The state’s complaint seeks damages on behalf of Fatma Farghaly for mental and emotional distress. “It also seeks punitive damages for the willful nature of Greda’s conduct, statutory civil penalties and attorney’s fees, expenses and costs, as well as relief to redress violations of the LAD through training and monitoring of the rental practices at Maple Garden,” reads the AG’s statement.
Leaders in the muslim community were dismayed at the allegations, but appreciated the state’s response and investigation.
Wail Rasheed, director of the Islamic Center of Union County, told LocalSource that he is disturbed by the incident. “I am saddened by the intolerance that is happening more frequently due to bad media and false advertisement about Islam.” But Rasheed said that he is glad the state is taking the allegations seriously. “We welcome charges in this housing discrimination case,” said Rasheed. “I don’t know much about this case, but what I can say with confidence is that American Muslims are not going anywhere. People need to realize that Muslims are your doctors, pharmacists, nurses, bankers.”
Rasheed says that the best way to promote tolerance and perhaps prevent discrimination incidents such as the ones alleged in this case is for Americans to get to know each other. “As you can see, human interaction changes everything,” he said. “Get to know your neighbors and the people around you that may fear you out of ignorance.”
James Sues, executive director for the Council on American-Muslim Relations, New Jersey chapter, told LocalSource in an email that he appreciates the investigation by the attorney general’s office. “We welcome the charges brought against this couple by the attorney general’s office, and we certainly appreciate the efforts by the Division on Civil Rights to investigate the alleged violations,” said Sues. “Anyone in this country should be able to live freely and without discrimination in the housing of their choice.”