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Business

Senate housing bias hearing focuses on four who were no-shows

Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) questioned whether the owner

Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) questioned whether the owner of Woodbury-based Realty Connect USA could effectively supervise more than 400 agents. Co-owner Bart Cafarella said he could. Credit: NY State Senate

Lawmakers at a state Senate hearing Friday expressed outrage about an apparent lack of disciplinary actions against real estate agents spotlighted in Newsday's "Long Island Divided" series on housing discrimination and suggested brokers might need limits on the number of agents they supervise.

The four Woodbury-based real estate professionals from Realty Connect USA who were questioned under subpoena at the hearing spoke in support of fair-housing laws and insisted they did not discriminate. They also said brokerage owners provide ample supervision.

State Sen. James Skoufis (D-Cornwall) noted that based on the testimony on Friday and at a previous hearing, no agents appeared to have faced discipline. Skoufis said he could accept that certain instances might not have merited punishment, but he said, "to suggest that every single allegation in the Newsday exposé was not credible, I think is outrageous and outlandish."

The proceeding came eight days after the four brokerage representatives failed to appear at a seven-hour hearing focusing on Newsday’s investigation. The four were among 31 real estate agents and brokers who received subpoenas requiring their presence. At that online hearing, Skoufis said a Senate attorney was consulting with a state judge about their failure to appear, saying people who receive subpoenas cannot "thumb their nose" at them.

Bart Cafarella, an owner of Realty Connect USA, testified that in his more than 40 years in real estate, "I have always taken fair housing practices quite seriously. Everyone has the right to fair and equal treatment at all aspects of their lives, including most especially when obtaining housing." The joint public hearing was held by the State Senate committees on consumer protection, housing, and investigations and government operations.

Cafarella said his brokerage has always provided extensive training in fair housing and other topics, but that it stepped up its focus on housing bias after the Newsday project was published, hiring Smithtown-based attorney Andrew Lieb to train agents and the Syosset-based nonprofit Erase Racism to provide further education.

Newsday's three-year investigation found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers and minority communities.

In 40% of the tests, evidence suggested that brokers subjected minority testers to disparate treatment in comparison with white testers, with inequities rising to nearly half the time for Black potential buyers.

Newsday relied on two nationally known experts in fair housing standards to evaluate the agents’ actions, which were recorded by hidden cameras.

Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49% of the time — compared with 39% for Hispanic and 19% for Asian testers.

Cafarella said that when he first read Newsday’s coverage and reviewed the video footage, he was "concerned at face value, things may not always appear as they should."

But after speaking with each of the Realty Connect USA agents named in the series and viewing the full videos, he said, "I was satisfied that unequal treatment, racial bias or steering was not at the heart of their statements with the testers. Yet if any of the comments recorded offended anyone, I along with the agents in question are truly and sincerely sorry."

Realty Connect USA agent Reza Amiryavari also testified, saying, "I don't believe I violated any fair housing law. However, as a result of the Newsday investigation, I now realize that even the best of intentions can be misconstrued or interpreted as something … improper." Amiryavari said he has since taken six classes on fair housing, and he noted that as an immigrant from the Middle East, "I have made it a personal and professional practice to look past an individual's race or any protected class."

In the Newsday investigation, Amiryavari told a white tester, "I don’t think you should be in Elmont," suggesting Franklin Square instead. The communities are 65% and 85% white, respectively, census figures show.

Skoufis played a clip of that exchange and said to Cafarella, "Certainly that seems to me to be steering. Now, what convinced you otherwise after having a conversation with your agent?" Steering is the illegal practice of guiding homebuyers to different communities based on race.

Cafarella said the clip was "16 seconds of probably several hours of interactions," and that the agent didn’t realize there was a difference in the racial makeup of the communities.

Later, State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) asked Cafarella if he felt he was able to effectively supervise the more than 400 agents in his brokerage.

Cafarella said he and his partner in the brokerage consider supervision their "primary role," and he said they supervise the agents "quite effectively."

Thomas asked, "If we were to introduce legislation to limit the number of people working under your license, would that be an issue for you guys?"

Cafarella said, "I don't think that would be effective in your ultimate goal."

Thomas replied that from the testimony he heard at the two hearings, "It just seems that … there are way too many people that you guys have to supervise and it's just not adequate."

Watch video of the hearings

Archived videos of the two recent proceedings can be viewed online.

Sept. 25 hearing: nwsdy.li/senvid925

Sept. 17 hearing: nwsdy.li/senvid917

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