Racial Profiling Allegations Emerge at Luxury Brooklyn Rental Building After Guest Screening Conflicts and Dog Park Bans

Racial Profiling Allegations Emerge at Luxury Brooklyn Rental Building After Guest Screening Conflicts and Dog Park Bans
Roommates Nikko Lester, right, and Stephan Nylon Bartholomew, with their Alaskan husky Onyx, Dec. 18, 2020. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY. This article was originally published
by THE CITY

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For more than a year, roommates Nikko Sherard Lester and Stephan Nylon Bartholomew lived without incident at AVA DoBro, a luxury rental building in Downtown Brooklyn.

But this past spring, the duo say, things started to sour.

In April, another tenant’s dog lunged at their Alaskan husky, Onyx, near an elevator in the high-rise at 100 Willoughby St., they said. Lester and Bartholomew, who contend the other canine provoked the incident, say building management banned them and Onyx from building’s dog park.

They called the decision, which they said was made without review of security-camera footage, deeply unfair. Lester wondered if their being Black had something to do with the ban, but initially dismissed the thought.

“I like to be very careful before I make assumptions — you know, ‘Is this racially motivated?’” Lester told THE CITY.

They’re not the only Black tenants who say they’ve had problems with management over dog-related incidents in the building, where rentals run from $1,770 for a studio to $4,850 for a three-bedroom apartment. The pair and one other tenant have filed complaints about AvalonBay, which manages the building, with a fair housing advocacy group.

‘He Fits the Mold’

Lester and Bartholomew say their issues with the building grew when they hosted a Black friend from Los Angeles during the summer.

Concierges at the building’s front desk stopped the man in the lobby at least twice, Lester said, asking him to call the roommates before allowing him to walk through.

Other, non-Black friends, Lester and Bartholomew said, had not been screened in the same way. Bartholomew, a personal trainer, said one pal, whom he described as an “all-American white boy,” would walk “straight past the concierge.”

“And why? Because he fits the mold that he lives in the building,” he said.

Lester asked a concierge why he’d stopped his Black friend. He said the staffer told him hotels in the area had recently been used as emergency shelters due to COVID-19, and AVA DoBro’s management told its workers to be extra careful.

The AVA DoBro apartment building in Downtown Brooklyn, Dec. 18, 2020. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city’s Department of Homeless Services confirmed the agency has been housing homeless New Yorkers in two hotels in the Downtown Brooklyn area since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Because of the homeless people living next door, we’ve been told by the building that we have to be very strict on, you know, who comes in here,” Lester recalled the concierge saying.

“And I say, Wait a minute. I said, Do you hear what you’re saying? I said, ‘You’re assuming. Your assumption is that my friend who is visiting me is homeless. He’s a Black man. And because he has a hoodie on and sweatpants on, you assume that he’s homeless or he’s suspicious?’”

Lester said he asked another concierge the same question about his friend being stopped.

“They both gave me this same answer,” he said. “So, somebody up above is telling you to do this. And I said, ‘That’s a problem.’”

‘I Don’t Feel Safe’

Just weeks after his friend was stopped in the lobby, Lester was allegedly beaten in police custody following June’s racial justice rallies. The proximity of the two incidents unnerved him, he said.

“It’s ridiculously overwhelming,” he said. “I feel like, at least in my home, I should feel some type of safety. And I don’t even feel safe.”

The situation escalated for the roommates when another Black friend, Ebony Tye used the building’s gym without realizing guests were not allowed there due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Tye told THE CITY the building’s manager ordered her to leave “aggressively” after wrenching open the gym door and “storming in.”

“She walked directly to me and told me to get out,” said Tye, a performance and movement coach who had traveled from Los Angeles to New York to work with Lester, a producer and singer.

Afterwards, Lester, Bartholomew and Tye went to the building’s office to try to clear the air with the staffer, who, like them, is Black.

“‘We as a people need to do better,’” Bartholomew remembers telling her. “Because I’m sure if she was a white resident … our tones tend to change. Our disposition and our demeanor changes.”

Bartholomew believes not just race, but colorism was at play, as well.

“She’s darked skin, you’re lighter skinned, you’re treating her that way,” he recalled telling the worker.

The conversation did not go well: Lester concedes he “got loud” and left. Bartholomew said someone called the police, though he’s unsure who. Officers came to the building, he said, then quickly left.

In a statement, Kurt Conway, a spokesperson for AvalonBay, said the company would not comment “on the specifics of any particular incident or situation.”

He noted: “We do have policies and rules in place to help ensure the safety and comfort of all of our residents, including policies regarding access to the building and its amenities and rules regarding behavior of pets and other animals.”

“We endeavor in all cases to apply our rules fairly and consistently to ensure the best environment for all residents and guests,” Conway added. “AvalonBay is committed to both the spirit and the letter of federal, state and local fair housing laws, and does not take any actions or apply any policies on the basis of an individual’s membership in any protected class.”

According to its investor portfolio, AvalonBay is the ninth largest publicly traded real estate investment group in the country. The organization has 80,000 homes under its management in the United States, including nearly 16,000 units in the New York City metro area.

‘What the Hell Is Happening?’

As Lester and Bartholomew grappled with management, another tenant, Meka Jegede, was dealing with what she described as her own puzzling interaction with the building’s staff.

Jegede, an attorney who is Nigerian by way of Britain and Australia, has lived in the building since 2017 and, like Lester and Bartholomew, was satisfied with the AvalonBay complex until earlier this year.

She said she and her dog were attacked by another tenant’s pets in April. In her case, she said, the incident happened inside the third-floor dog park — where two bulldogs got away from their owner and drew blood from her and her Swiss Shepherd, Theo.

“They just came for us. They attack me and attack Theo. There are multiple other residents present. Everybody’s like, ‘What the hell is happening?’” Jegede said.

After the owner pulled his dogs away and stormed off, a woman told Jegede that she was bleeding.

“I hadn’t even realized, I was so worried about Theo. And one of the bites had gone through my trousers. I was wearing pajama bottoms — classic lockdown uniform,” Jegede said. “I had cuts on my hand, nothing too serious. But … they’d broken skin.”

Out of concern over whether she needed to get rabies shots for herself and her dog, she said she immediately emailed building management to report what had happened — and to request contact information for the tenant whose dogs she said attacked her.

But instead of telling her the other tenant’s name, a staffer simply said the incident was under investigation, according to Jegede.

About a month later, the general manager of AVA DoBro and a neighboring AvalonBay complex told Jegede that she had reviewed footage of the incident, determined Theo had been aggressive and banned Jegede from the park.

“I’m obviously furious, because I’m the victim here. My dog is not the aggressor,” she said. “You claim you reviewed CCTV footage. But where is it? Why haven’t I seen it?”

A short time later, Brian Yu, a neighbor of Jegede who is Chinese-American, was attacked by the same dogs, he told THE CITY. His dog was not banned from the park.

But Yu said he was similarly stonewalled by building managers, who refused to release footage of the incident.

Lester and Bartholomew also said they never were able to get management to show them the footage from the incident with their dog near the elevator.

“The easiest way to make all of us shut up — if we’re protesting a ban — is to release the video and say, ‘But look, look at your dog. Your dog’s a psycho.’ But you don’t. You don’t release the footage. So what on earth are you doing?” Jegede said.

Options for Redress

Jegede, Lester and Bartholomew have reported AvalonBay to the Fair Housing Justice Center, an advocacy group that investigates possible discrimination in housing. FHJC confirmed it is looking into their claims, but declined to comment on the cases.

The three tenants are unsure whether they will pursue legal actions against AvalonBay, they told THE CITY.

But for New Yorkers who believe they’ve been discriminated against based on race, color and other protected classes like disability, there are options beyond filing a lawsuit, noted Katherine Carroll, an assistant commissioner at the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

“The way the statute is written gives us a lot of leeway in the type of relief that we would seek,” said Carroll, whose agency enforces the city’s Human Rights Law, which covers housing discrimination.

If a claim is substantiated by the commission, the agency has options for redress: It can seek monetary damages for a victim from the person or entity found at fault; levy fines to be paid to the city; or mandate sensitivity training or changes in a workplace, among other things.

CCHR has no current discrimination investigations open regarding AvalonBay. The agency is currently investigating AvalonBay regarding an employment complaint, but could not discuss details about the case.

Last year, the commission mandated $6.5 million in damages and nearly $1 million in civil penalties in New York overall, figures that have each nearly tripled in the past four years, according to the agency’s annual report.

“It’s really depressing,” Carroll said. “We’re constantly hearing, you know, ‘I had no idea the law was this broad. I had no idea this resource existed.’ So, I think we have a pretty good sense that what we’re seeing is just a fraction of what’s actually going on in the city.”

She added that it takes a “lot of courage and fortitude” to follow through with a complaint. Often, those who come forward are people for whom “this is not the first discrimination they’ve experienced.”

“They’ve reached a breaking point where it’s time to report it,” Carroll said.

‘Why Should I Be Forced Out?’

For Jegede, it took time for to see her treatment as racist. Hearing Lester and Bartholomew’s accounts made things clearer, she said.

“Being from the U.K., it’s taken me years of living in America to start viewing things through a racial lens,” she said.

But she said she felt it was important to share her story — as a warning to other future tenants like herself, searching for a dog friendly place to live, perhaps in a new city.

“The next me who moves to America and thinks, ‘I want to live in a nice building in downtown Brooklyn,’ I want this to come up when they search,” she said.

Bartholomew and Lester have a similar aim. When they moved in, they could count on one hand the number Black tenants they saw in the building. Recently, they’ve noticed a few more faces like theirs in the halls.

“We don’t want them to experience what we’re experiencing. I don’t want this to happen to the next person,” Lester said. “Because if we let them get away with this … they’re going to continue to discriminate.”

The two roommates’ lease ended on Dec. 18, and they say they will not be staying at the building long-term. They plan to find a new apartment, but it will be a challenge: Both lost work due to the pandemic and owe back rent to AvalonBay.

Jegede, however, isn’t giving up on the building. She recently signed a lease for a new apartment in the same Willoughby Street complex.

“This building really works for me,” she said. “I’m far away from home and I’ve built a community. Why should I be forced out? Because some people are, at best, incompetent and, at worst, racist?”

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