Giana Desir experienced sexual harassment and anti-transgender discrimination from a real estate broker while looking for housing in 2015. Not only did she win her case, but the New York City Commission on Human Rights doubled the amount of an award decided by an administrative judge.
Yet, about a year since that decision was announced, she’s spoken up and revealed she hasn’t seen one penny and hasn’t heard a word from the commission or the people that are supposed to pay her the damages.
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In 2015, Desir lost her home when her landlord decided not to renew her lease after she began transitioning.
During her search for a new place to live, she found Henry Walter of Empire State Realty & Management. They had a fine conversation on the phone, but when Walter met Desir in person and learned she was trans, he told her she could not rent an apartment “around children” but offered her a place “in a basement somewhere with its own entrance.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were transgender?” Walter asked Desir, according to the commission’s report. “Thank God I had you come here at night. What would people have thought if they had seen you.”
Desir testified that Walter also made inappropriate and demeaning comments about her, such as asking about what she liked sexually and threatening to spank her. He also told her that if anyone found out he helped her that they would assume he “let [her] suck [his] dick.”
Despite the fact that New York’s Human Rights Law started protecting trans people against discrimination early in 2016, Walter admitted to Desir that he thought he was allowed to discriminate against her based on her gender identity.
Desir decided she had to take action, so she enlisted the help of Brooklyn Legal Services and filed a complaint in 2016.
After three years, in June 2019 the administration judge ordered the landlord to pay a fine of $15,000 and a civil penalty of $10,000. He also ordered “that respondent be ordered to undergo anti-discrimination training.”
In March 2020, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, a city-operated agency, re-evaluated the case and determined that instead of the $25,000 that was initially awarded, Desir was entitled to $50,000 in damages due to the horrific discrimination she faced.
Walter also received a separate civil penalty of $25,000 and was ordered to undergo anti-discrimination training (along with his employees) as well as undergo a compliance audit. Walter and his company decided to not to take an active part in the proceedings or actively work with the Commission or Desir.
Afterward, the agency featured Desir in an ad campaign around the city encouraging others to come forward and report instances of discrimination in housing. She became a poster woman for seeking justice for anti-trans discrimination in housing, with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) commenting in March 2020 that “What happened to Giana Desir is another example of why we need my #EqualityAct.”
Yet, Desir reported that as of last week, she has received nothing toward the money she’s entitled to get and has heard nothing about the status of her judgment from the agency.
“I received absolutely nothing, and on top of receiving nothing, not even a phone call,” Desir said to THE CITY. “The only communication I had with anyone dealing with this situation was for the small ad that they did. Basically, nobody really gave a hoot.”
The campaign she took part in, for Fair Housing Month which is April, was “voluntary” and she wasn’t compensated for it.
— Carolyn B. Maloney (@CarolynBMaloney) March 10, 2020
Desir, who found secure housing in Brooklyn in 2018, has described the entire ordeal — now in its sixth calendar year — to be “exhausting.”
“I still remember how disheartening, how hurt and how crushed I was when I could not find an apartment, simply based on me being trans. I don’t think anyone can understand how disheartening that feels.”
THE CITY published their interview with Desir initially on March 23. Then, on March 24, lawyers for the commission took action.
They filed a petition in the New York State Supreme Court asking to stipulate an additional $38,000 in late fees to the rest of the judgment. They also confirmed that Walter has yet to comply with the order and did not take part in trans community-led mediation, which was a condition for possibly reducing the civil penalties.
“It’s really kind of screwed up that people in the commission are probably only going to look back at this because someone brought attention to it, when it should have been something that should have been important to them,” Desir said after.
The agency claims it has referred the case to the New York City Law Department for “collection and enforcement.”
“We’ll hold Empire and Walter accountable — they are not above the law,” Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said last week, although he acknowledged that the Commission is supposed to “deal with the complainant.”
This came just as it was announced that another trans person from New York City, Danny Hart, will receive $25,000 in damages as part of a settlement agreed to between the Apex Technical School — the trade school where Hart endured the discrimination — and the Commission, which supported Hart in the case.
The NYC Human Rights Commission literally put Giana Desir on a poster, but they couldn't manage a single phone call to her as her settlement went unpaid for over a year. @gluissandoval on her battle. https://t.co/lL16DnDm5N
— Nicholas Dawes (@NicDawes) March 24, 2021