Counterclaims allege harassment against HOA board members
By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
A few months ago, I posted an article about a $7.5 million Fair Housing lawsuit filed by 15 Hasidic Jewish families in Highland Lake Estates (HLE), White Plains, New York. Plaintiffs in that lawsuit allege religious discrimination, perpetrated by members of the HOA board of directors.
Current and former residents of HLE contend that HOA board members selectively enforced rules against holiday decorations and adornments, and created new rules to make it difficult to show and sell homes to other Hasidic Jewish buyers. The suit also claims that board members Christopher Perino and Carmine Mastrogiacomo, and others, harassed some Jewish families, and engaged in offensive behavior that prevented owners from renting their properties to Hasidic Jews.
Now the Times Herald Record reports that board members of Highland Lake Estates have filed counterclaims against the Plaintiffs, alleging $25 million in damages, and complaining that Hasidic Jewish homeowners and residents have been harassing and bullying the board.
Homeowners association leaders deny anti-Hasidic allegations
By Chris McKenna
Posted Jul 31, 2018 at 8:57 PM
Updated Jul 31, 2018 at 8:57 PM
HIGHLAND MILLS — Board members in the private Highland Lake Estates development have fired back at allegations of anti-Hasidic discrimination, countering that they merely enforced community bylaws and that their accusers harassed and made false charges against them.
In papers filed Friday in U.S. District Court in White Plains, leaders of the homeowners association for the 168-home development denied the discriminatory acts that Hasidic residents alleged in a lawsuit in May, and leveled counterclaims against them. They accuse the plaintiffs of following and videotaping them, sending them harassing text messages, and saying on one occasion that they will “own all of this” and “bankrupt the community and have the town take this over.”
Three board members held a press conference next to a lake in the development on Tuesday to amplify their response to the lawsuit.
Board President Carmine Mastrogiacomo read aloud a statement calling Highland Lake Estates a “successful, diverse and multi-cultural community” that welcomes all newcomers who abide by the community’s bylaws. But its residents will not tolerate the “aggression, hostility and intimidation” some families have faced in the past year, he said.
“We welcome everyone, but we will not be pushed out, bullied or harassed by those who wish to achieve segregated goals in bad faith, through force, pitifully under the guise of religion,” Mastrogiacomo said. “We are facing absolute bullying against our community. We didn’t ask for this, and didn’t do anything to deserve it, but we will stand up and fight this.”
The board’s statements in the TH Record appear to be designed to paint their new Hasidic neighbors as some sort of alien invaders, looking to take over Highland Lake Estates.
But are these accusations fair or accurate? Or is this a case of a majority of HOA board members desperately seeking to defend the indefensible?
Shifting balance of power?
From the beginning of time, including U.S. history, it has been human nature for people of similar culture and values to congregate and settle in homes close to one another. It’s natural to want close friends or family members to live in the same neighborhood.
Visit any major city in America, and you’ll find each has their own versions Chinatown or Little Italy, historically black neighborhoods, as well as pocket neighborhoods for Korean, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and, of course, Jewish families. In other words, to some extent, people want to live in neighborhoods where they can feel comfortable.
Nothing new about that.
But, on the other hand, people also have a strong desire to be free to move to any neighborhood of their choosing, without fear of intimidation.
Though it has been fifty years since the passing of the first Fair Housing Acts in the U.S., it’s unfortunate that historic neighborhood divisions remain, as persistent as ever. Neighborhoods and school districts remain segregated by economic class, race, and ethnic identity.
The major difference is that the Haves and the Have Nots seem to have migrated to different neighborhoods. In some cases, populations have switched places in four or five decades. Poverty is increasing in the suburbs, while affluent property owners invest in redeveloped urban areas.
As the housing version of musical chairs plays out, there’s bound to be friction between existing residents of a community and their new neighbors with very different cultures and values.
As illustrated by recent events at Highland Lake Estates, as soon as several family households from an Orthodox Jewish group started to move into their established neighborhood, a core group of homeowners — who happen to be HOA board members — apparently reacted out of fear and, allegedly, with aggression toward their new neighbors.
In general, HOA-ville provides the convenience of covering up one’s intentional or unintentional prejudices, by way of selectively enforcing arbitrary rules and standards.
But there’s also another side to HOA living.
It’s a fact that political power in these quasi-governmental organizations is often skewed, because voting power in HOA-ville is assigned to each individually owned property, not to the actual people who reside in association-governed communities.
So when the political majority of homeowners (shareholders) in the HOA corporation notice that people with different views and values are buying up homes at a brisk pace, existing leaders tend to become territorial and defensive.
In fact, the existence of the HOA voting hierarchy — based upon property ownership status — actually encourages an individual or small group to acquire as many homes as possible, with the intent of taking over the board of trustees and rewriting the governing documents to serve a new political majority.
We see this dynamic quite often with investor groups seeking to force termination of a condominium association.
Could it also be possible that a group of people with common religious beliefs might seek to remake an HOA to better suit their values?
Without knowing all the details, and because I don’t personally reside in HLE, it’s hard to say what’s behind the bitter legal battle that has just begun.
Most likely, the tug-of-war between opposing groups of HLE homeowners is further complicated by the ever-present HOA Board/Manager vs. homeowners hierarchy — an “us vs. them” governance structure that doesn’t formally exist in non-HOA neighborhoods.
Isn’t it ironic that in the U.S., government leaders have managed to institutionalize a privatized local governance model that ultimately encourages exclusivity, opposition to change, and discrimination, all under the guise of protecting property values?