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Suffolk Fair Housing task force focuses on need to enforce anti-bias laws

Members of the Suffolk County Fair Housing Task

Members of the Suffolk County Fair Housing Task Force on a Zoom meeting Wednesday. The group has until the end of the year to recommend ways to strengthen the county's human rights law and combat housing discrimination.  Credit: Suffolk County Fair Housing Task Force

Real estate agents who break anti-bias laws should be fined and have their licenses revoked, the head of Suffolk County’s Fair Housing Task Force said Wednesday.

If agents violate housing discrimination laws, they “have to be taken out of that profession, [they] need to be fined," the chair of the task force, Legis. Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), said during a Zoom video conference call meeting of task force members and observers. The gathering drew more than 20 people, including elected officials and housing and human rights advocates.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a new law making it easier for the state to revoke the licenses of real estate agents who violate anti-bias laws.

But without paired testing — that is, sending two people with similar financial qualifications but different races to meet with agents — Gonzalez said, “there's no way of knowing, there's no way of trying to stop this…. Part of the problem that we're going to have now is, how do we get the funding?” Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said, “money is scarce, we're looking at cuts.”

The task force, formed after the publication of a Newsday investigation last year into housing discrimination on Long Island, met for the first time last month. The group has until the end of the year to recommend ways to strengthen the county's human rights law and combat housing discrimination.

At the meeting Wednesday, speakers focused on the need for more enforcement of anti-bias laws — including measures that would protect homeseekers from being steered to different communities depending on their race — as well as zoning changes that would allow more affordable and multifamily housing to be built.

Dawn Lott, executive director of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, said the commission has received additional county funding, which has allowed it to add an investigator to its staff and bring on a panel of administrative law judges.

In addition, there needs to be a way to keep track of agents who violate the law and educate the public about anti-bias laws, Lott said. “The amounts of housing discrimination are not reflected in the numbers that we receive here in our office,” she said.

Ian Wilder, executive director of the Bohemia-based fair-housing group Long Island Housing Services, suggested the county withhold federal housing funds from municipalities unless they take steps to combat segregation. “That's a quick way for the county to get started on dealing with segregation,” he said.

Such a move would come in contrast to the approach of President Donald Trump, who has criticized efforts to provide more affordable housing in suburbs. Last month, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced its plans to terminate a 2015 Obama administration rule that aimed to strengthen the 1968 Fair Housing Act by requiring local governments to take action against segregation.

Mitchell Pally, executive director of the Long Island Builders Institute, a trade group in Islandia, said municipalities should rezone certain areas to allow more affordable housing.

Housing bias “is not just whether you can rent or buy a place, it’s whether the place gets built or where it gets built in the first place,” he said. Elected officials, he said, should come up with their own rezoning plans “and not wait for a developer to come in and ask for a zoning change.”

The task force will hold its next meeting on Sept. 14 at 1 p.m., when it expects to set dates for public hearings on housing discrimination on Long Island.

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