Top NYC Resi Brokers Investigated in Section 8 Voucher Suit


Douglas Elliman’s Noble Black, Holly Parker, Nest Seekers’ Tamir Shemesh and Douglas Elliman’s Francis Katzen (Elliman, Nest Seekers, Getty; Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

Douglas Elliman and some of the biggest names in New York City residential real estate are at the center of a lawsuit claiming they violated discrimination statutes in the Fair Housing Act.

The list of defendants in the suit filed last month in federal court reads as a who’s who of New York City luxury agents, who allegedly either failed to respond to Shaniqua Newkirk when she sent emails requesting help finding Section 8 housing, or failed to provide adequate help.

The lawsuit says that Newkirk, who is Black, tried to find agents to help her use her voucher to find a home in the spring of 2021. She was unsuccessful, and in June of that year she found a list of New York City’s most successful agents and brokers, whom she contacted to enlist their help with finding a suitable unit.

But “Newkirk was unable to secure alternative housing prior to the expiration of her voucher,” the complaint says, and she was “forced to remain in a decrepit rodent and vermin infested apartment.”

Among the brokers the suit says failed to assist Newkirk are Noble Black, Holly Parker, Tamir Shemesh, Francis Katzen, Lauren Muss and Tal and Oren Alexander — all names that have appeared in The Real Deal’s rankings of the city’s residential brokers in recent years. Other top Elliman agents named in the suit include Elana Schoppmann, Diane Johnson, Eleanora Srugo, Ann Cutbill Lenane and Janna Raskopf.

The suit also alleges that Elliman is in violation of city laws requiring it to “prominently and conspicuously” display a link to the Fair Housing and Anti-Discrimination notice on its homepage. 

“Only at the very end of the homepage in tiny font under the heading of State Disclosures is a link to the Fair Housing and Anti-Discrimination Notice,” states the suit. “Defendants are more concerned with their luxury brand than they are with following the law.”

Newkirk’s attorney, Steven Siegel, did not return a request for comment.

Elliman disputed the claims. 

“We will be challenging the merits of these predatory and baseless claims,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “Douglas Elliman has a zero tolerance policy towards unfair and illegal treatment of any individual or group. We pride ourselves on our mandatory agent training program that is inclusive of rigorous fair housing law education.”

Broker responses — or not at all — can spell violation

Some agents seemed not to understand what a Section 8 housing voucher is in their responses to Newkirk, according to selections from broker responses included in the complaint.

“I only specialize in luxury real estate transactions and don’t even know what sec 8 means,”  Madeline Hult Elghanayan told the plaintiff.

The last correspondence between Newkirk and Diane Johnson was Johnson asking: “I really don’t know what Sec 8 voucher is?”

Jennifer Kalish said: “At this moment I don’t have any landlords or owners that are accepting Section 8. But I will keep you in mind if anything comes to mind.”

Fair housing attorney Craig Gurian, speaking generally and without direct knowledge of the lawsuit, said violations are judged by whether the agents responded to Newkirk as they normally would a client. Agents who told Newkirk they don’t have apartments that qualify for Section 8, or who said they don’t work in that sector of the market, may be found guilty of a violation for not referring her to a colleague who does. 

It’s possible for an agent to have violated fair housing by not responding to an email, Gurian said, if the expectation is that they would respond to other client inquiries.

“I basically was named for not responding to an email,” Srugo told TRD. “And when I search my inbox, I don’t have any record of ever receiving it.”

But exhibits filed in court show Newkirk sent emails to Srugo on June 14 and 15, 2021, which went unanswered.

Among the agents who also didn’t answer Newkirk are Sarah Burke, now with Compass, Jane Powers, Neal Sroka, Joshua Lieberman, Rachel Medalie, Elena Sarkissian, Francis Katzen, Lauren Muss, Bruce Erhmann, Eileen Hsu and the Alexander brothers, who have since left to form their own company, Official, backed by white-label firm Side.

Newkirk’s communications with other agents varied. 

Cybele Kadagian, now with Sotheby’s, appears to have offered to help Newkirk, but her email appears to have gone unanswered by the plaintiff. 

“Yes, landlords do accept Section 8. I do not currently have any of these apts. What are you willing to spend and what area?” wrote Kadagian.

Tamir Shemesh, now with Nest Seekers, said: “Of course we are willing to help. How many bedrooms are you looking for and how much are you looking to spend?”

Newkirk responded by saying she was looking for a one-bedroom and that her voucher was good for $1,705 per month, but Shemesh never responded to that email or a follow-up.

When Newkirk asked Holly Parker if she had any apartments that take vouchers, Parker responded: “I’m sorry but I don’t have access to those.”

Jason Walker, Andrew Azoulay, now with Bespoke, and Emily Sertic all said they didn’t have any listings accepting vouchers.

Ann Cutbill Lenane said: “I wish that I could help you but I know that Section 8 housing right now it’s so hard to find and I never deal with it at all but good luck with your search.”

The rest of the defendants in the case include licensed brokers Kari Kaplan, Wendy E. Sanders, Lauren Litt, Jaqueline Teplitzky, Andrew Anderson and Suzan Kremer. The suit also names executives, including chief counsel Kenneth Haber, Long Island CEO Ann Conroy and residential leasing vice president Hal D. Gavzie. 

Fair housing troubles in the tri-state area

Elliman was previously one of several residential players named in a three-year Newsday investigation on fair housing violations on Long Island. A 2019 report outlined pervasive discrimination against people of color posing as home buyers, triggering a state probe in which 67 agents and executives were subpoenaed.

Some cases against agents fell apart, but the state did pass legislation in 2020 allowing the government to revoke real estate licenses in cases of discrimination. This year, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration expanded an undercover tester program.

In March, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development announced it would spend $3.1 million to combat source-of-income discrimination, in which owners or brokers turn away tenants seeking to pay with vouchers or other public assistance. The U.S. Department of Justice has had a fair housing testing program since 1991.

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