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National Urban League seeks probe of Long Island real estate agents

Following Newsday's three-year "Long Island Divided" investigation of discrimination by real estate agents across Long Island, Elaine Gross, founder and president of ERASE Racism on Monday reacted to its findings.  (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang)

The National Urban League called Monday for New York State Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the practices of Long Island real estate agents revealed in a Newsday investigation that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of potential minority home buyers. 

James should investigate the real estate agents Newsday identified for violations of the federal Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination in the housing market based on race, color or national origin, Urban League president and chief executive Marc H. Morial said.

“The type of discrimination that Newsday found is particularly insidious because it can remain in the shadows indefinitely,” Morial said. “Until the testers compared notes, they had no idea they’d experienced vastly different treatment by the real estate agents.”

Morial issued a joint statement with Theresa Sanders, president of the Urban League of Long Island. The Urban League, based in New York City, advocates for economic and social justice for African Americans.

“I’m horrified to realize the extent to which real estate agents on Long Island are actively promoting segregation while limiting opportunities for black buyers to purchase the homes of their choice,” Sanders said, responding to the results of the three-year investigation published Sunday, which used paired testing of agents. “These practices have no place anywhere in America, and we will not stand by while black homeowners are treated unfairly.”

Sanders said she had received telephone calls from other leaders on Long Island seeking “to brainstorm” ideas to address the type of fair housing violations described in the series, “Long Island Divided.”

“It’s hard to get all this information and not do anything,” Sanders said. “Some of it could be policy. It needs to be a couple of things. Even the real estate industry — they need to be at the table.”

Newsday’s stories made one thing clear, Sanders said. “If there’s no enforcement, people will get away with what they want,” she said.

George Siberón, executive director of the Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association, agreed that agencies that regulate real estate agents should do more.

“There has to be some kind of, either punishment, or better training … some deterrent to real estate agents” to prevent them from the prohibited practices of steering or treating clients differently on the basis of race or ethnicity, Siberón said. 

Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a nonprofit group in Bohemia that conducts fair housing testing, said he expects Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to hold immediate discussions with the Department of State, which regulates real estate agents, about licensing and training requirements.

“I imagine he’s looking for ways to beef up enforcement and I would hope looking for ways to boost funding for organizations like mine that do testing,” Wilder said.

Newsday’s three-year investigation strongly indicates that house hunting in one of the country’s most segregated suburbs poses substantial risk of discrimination, with African American buyers chancing disadvantages nearly half the time they enlist brokers. Test results found that black testers faced evidence of discrimination in 49 percent of tests when they were paired with white buyers, Hispanics 39 percent of the time and Asians 19 percent of the time.

Adding teeth to local, state and national fair housing laws is needed, as well as more involvement of residents, said Elaine Gross, executive director of ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based advocacy group.

Gross called on local municipalities “to take an audit of themselves to make sure they’re not discriminating” in their housing policies or zoning laws.

“I think that we do need a positive movement, if you will, of individuals who are willing to stand up in front of their friends and neighbors,” Gross said. “To say it’s a new day and we are going to be proactively making a change here on Long Island.” 

Tracey A. Edwards, Long Island regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said civil right leaders need to remain focused on housing because it also impacts education. 

“I think that it’s going to take business, community and elected officials at all levels to address this, and we have to put in place continued enforcement,” Edwards said. “We cannot rely on just Newsday to have to continue this on.”

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the federal, state and local agencies that have oversight responsibilities of the real estate industry “ought to enforce the rules and laws. Perhaps even more importantly, the professional organizations ought to make rooting out these awful practices high on their agenda.”

Levy added, “But in the end, it really does come down to home sellers to make it clear to brokers that they do not want to discriminate — that they do not want them to keep out people they’re afraid their former neighbors might not like.” 

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