Aug 11, 2023 2:05 PM
A new affordable housing development in Kiryas Joel will only sell homes to members of the Aaronite faction of the Satmar community "who send their kids to our schools and who are behaving appropriately," according to an announcement for the development that appeared in July in The Kiryas Joel Journal, a weekly newspaper serving the local Aaronite Satmar community.
The cost of housing has risen in recent years in Kiryas Joel as the Satmar community’s high birth rate and the migration of families from Brooklyn have created high demand for housing.
The announcement offers homes for sale at $200 per square foot in an area where other homes often sell for $300 or more per square foot. But the non-financial criteria for qualifying for these homes would likely exclude those outside the Aaronite Satmar group, as well as those from within who don’t toe the line.
The development is being marketed to “first-time homebuyers.” According to the announcement, more than 400 people have already called to express “a strong interest.”
Civil rights attorney Michael Sussman, who has represented Kiryas Joel Village residents in lawsuits against the village, believes the qualifications described in the announcement are illegal. “That’s clearly a violation of the Fair Housing Act and New York State housing laws against discrimination,” he said. The federal Fair Housing Act has, since its passage in 1968, made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent on the basis of membership in certain protected classes, including religion.
But University of Southern California law professor Nomi Stolzenberg says more information would be necessary to determine whether the qualifications amount to illegal discrimination.
“The determination of who can rent or buy a unit based on being a certain religion is illegal under fair housing laws,” she said, but the lack of clarity in the announcement about the nature of the housing, who owns it and how it’s being managed, led her to assert that the legality of the announcement could not be determined. For example, she said, if the housing is offered through a private boarding school, the rules imposed by the announcement might conform with anti-discrimination laws.
Throughout the years, Satmar leaders have imposed standards of behavior on residents of Kiryas Joel, according to historian David Myers, co-author, along with Stolzenberg, of the book American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic Village in Upstate New York. “When you apply to be admitted to private religious schools, you have to sign a document that says you will not watch television, the kids will not have a computer, you’ll make limited use of the internet,” he said.
“You see the sign in English when you enter Kiryas Joel that asks you to dress modestly, speak modestly, and adhere to the modesty rules of the community,” he added. “This expectation is permeated through and through the community and operates at many levels.”
Led by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the Aaronite faction comprises the majority of Kiryas Joel’s population, as opposed to the Satmar faction led by Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, which has a greater share of its population in and around Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nonetheless, while most of Kiryas Joel is Aaronite, there are large numbers of Zalmanite Satmar Hasidim, as well as members of another Satmar group, the Bnei Yoel.
“The homes will be dedicated to former students of Yeshiva Gedolah of Satmar,” an Aaronite school, the announcement says, “who behave in accordance with our holy Torah as transmitted to us by our late Satmar rebbes of blessed memory, and as is fitting and proper for a member of the Yetev Lev Satmar community.” In Kiryas Joel, “Yetev Lev” refers to the Aaronite faction.
Myers said there’s no doubt what that portion of the announcement is saying: “That clause makes it quite clear that it’s an attempt to privilege the followers of Aaron and discourage the followers of Zalman and the Bnei Yoel, and to further enshrine these differences in coming generations.”
To Stolzenberg, this announcement was reminiscent of past cases in which non-Aaronite Satmar Hasidim – whom she refers to as “dissidents” – have claimed discrimination by the dominant faction, but not been able to produce evidence as clear as this announcement.
“This is in so many ways a replay of the past, but we have never seen that degree of specificity,” she said, adding, “dissidents have alleged that, but it’s never been spelled out that way.”
The non-Aaronites have “made that argument over and over in many different settings, and for a whole variety of reasons, courts found procedural ways to dodge adjudicating that claim,” Stolzenberg said.
Stolzenberg said that the targeted housing opportunity could deepen the chasm that exists among Kiryas Joel’s Satmar groups.
“We’ve had a long period of relative peace and coexistence among the competing factions, but if this is really something that is going to deny access to housing to the dissidents, it would be surprising if they didn’t do what they’ve always done in the past: sue,” Stolzenberg said.
According to the announcement, those interested in purchasing the units for sale will be vetted by the grand rabbi himself.
The announcement also explains a process for other village leaders to participate in approving purchasers.
“We have tasked the vaad hakirya with putting together a list of our community members who are seeking to purchase homes when they are ready in the coming years,” the announcement says, referring to the religious committee Myers described as “like a shadow city council/executives.” A leader of the vaad did not respond to calls from Shtetl.