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NY Senate housing bias hearing, sparked by Newsday series, set to begin

"I want to understand, since this investigation came out ... what have they done differently?" said State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown). Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

As the State Senate prepares to hear testimony from subpoenaed real estate professionals Thursday, Long Island real estate industry leaders, elected officials and housing advocates say they support more vigorous enforcement of fair housing laws — but the effort comes as the state faces a budget shortfall that is forcing painful spending cuts.

At the online hearing on housing discrimination, lawmakers expect to question real estate agents from brokerages identified in Newsday’s "Long Island Divided" investigation into housing discrimination. The hearing was originally scheduled for April but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The proceeding, which will begin at 10 a.m. and can be viewed on the State Senate’s website, also will include testimony from experts on real estate and housing bias who are expected to testify about ways to ensure compliance with the law, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fair housing.

"I want to understand, since this investigation came out, since we started the hearing, what have they done differently," State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown), chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee, said of real estate professionals. "We haven't really used our subpoena power that often and... I hope they are forthcoming. I hope they understand the severity of what's going on here."

He also said, "I would like an apology."

The State Senate took the unusual step of issuing 31 subpoenas to some of the biggest brokerages operating on Long Island, including RE/MAX, Keller Williams and Realty Connect USA, after it invited 68 real estate industry executives and agents to testify at a hearing at Hofstra University in December, and only one appeared.

State lawmakers have not released a list of those expected to testify.

Legislators also expect to seek feedback Thursday on proposed measures that would impose stricter enforcement of fair housing laws, require more testing to uncover discrimination and mandate additional training for agents, among other changes.

"The laws are clear that this kind of discrimination is illegal," said State Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan), who chairs the housing committee. "I think that a combination of making sure people are properly educated, making sure they understand there are real penalties and making sure that the state has a real testing program … should go a long way to eliminating this kind of overt discrimination."

Tessa Hultz, CEO of the Long Island Board of Realtors, said in an interview Tuesday that real estate industry leaders support those proposals.

"The Long Island Divided project has been a nationwide conversation in our industry," Hultz said. "Here at LIBOR, obviously, we have kind of a special obligation to really lead the way in this area."

LIBOR has overhauled its state-mandated anti-discrimination training program for agents and offered additional educational resources, and it has created a diversity and inclusion committee and forged stronger relationships with fair-housing groups, among other changes, she said.

Ian Wilder, executive director of Bohemia-based nonprofit Long Island Housing Services, said paired testing — in which two people with similar financial qualifications but different characteristics such as race — would need to be a "major component" of any enforcement effort. "If you look at food safety, they have inspections, but inspections are not the sole thing, they also have education, they have certifications," he said.

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered state agencies overseeing civil rights, affordable housing and the licensing of real estate agents to launch a probe into housing discrimination, in coordination with state Attorney General Letitia James. A spokeswoman for James said an investigation is underway but declined to comment further.

Budget experts say it could be a tough battle to fund any additional work, since the pandemic has created a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Funding negotiations are "going to be the budgetary equivalent of a Star Wars bar scene," said Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany. "Anyone looking to secure new funding is going to be competing with other interests that are looking to have their funding levels maintained."

The shortfalls are expected to become even more severe in the years to come, said David Friedfel, director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission. If an enforcement program can generate its own funding through fines, he said, "that is the best chance of something like that being funded."

But, he said, "budgets are all about priorities, so if it is such a priority that state legislators are willing to pull money from somewhere else, then it’s possible, but it’s a harder lift this year than most."

New law and proposals

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a new law last month allowing the state to suspend or revoke agents’ licenses if they violate fair-housing laws. The measure was sponsored by Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights).

State lawmakers also have proposed legislation that would:

•Direct the state Division of Human Rights to create a statement about housing discrimination to be distributed to people who receive housing assistance.

•Mandate six hours of fair housing training for real estate agents to renew their licenses every two years, instead of the current three-hour requirement.

•Require the state attorney general to conduct fair housing testing each year.

•Obligate state agencies to identify and overcome patterns of segregation.

•Allow the commissioner of human rights to award damages to those harmed by housing discrimination, and let the courts impose additional penalties when the attorney general brings a bias case.

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