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New state rules to combat housing discrimination in wake of Newsday series

A neighborhood of houses in Elmont is seen

A neighborhood of houses in Elmont is seen in this aerial photo from July. Credit: Newsday / John Keating

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced new regulations Monday that would require real estate agents to inform all customers of their rights under anti-discrimination laws and prominently display information about how consumers can file complaints.

The measure also would mandate video recordings of all fair-housing classes for real estate agents.

The proposed new rules were approved Monday by the New York State Real Estate Board, which writes rules and regulations for the industry. They come in the wake of Newsday’s Long Island Divided investigation, which revealed evidence of widespread racial discrimination by real estate agents and brokers on Long Island in the judgment of two nationally known fair housing experts.

"Housing discrimination is completely unacceptable and it's also against the law," Cuomo said in a statement. "New York State is taking immediate action to help ensure renters and homeowners are protected from any and all discriminatory actions when it comes to safe, accessible housing."

The proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days, state officials said. In a news release, state officials said the measure is “one of several steps to combat housing discrimination in response to a Newsday report on housing discrimination on Long Island.”

Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, said she supports providing consumers with more information, but she also would like the state to fund paired testing — in which people of different races test to see whether agents treat them equally — and take stronger action when agents break the law. 

"There's no harm in saying that things should be posted more clearly," Gross said. But, “this does not address the fact that [real estate agents] are discriminating, offering different information to different people depending on what their racial or ethnic background is ...

"If you’re just posting things and telling people that there are fair-housing laws and here’s how you can file complaints, as we’ve said many times, people don’t even recognize that they’re being discriminated against," Gross said.

For agents who are tempted to practice discrimination, she said, "what will deter them the most is if they see that some realty agents are losing their licenses. That will be the biggest deterrent."

Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services Inc., in Bohemia, said posting a fair housing notice should already be "the bare minimum" provided by agents.

"But in order to have long-lasting effects, we need to look at larger problems of societal racism and failure to adequately enforce fair housing laws," including more paired testing, Wilder said.

The state board that approved the measure is authorized to write regulations that affect real estate agents and brokers, prescribe the content of state-mandated real estate courses, make recommendations about proposed new laws and advise the New York secretary of state. The board can include up to 15 members, including at least five real estate brokers and at least six "public" members who cannot be brokers. 

The secretary of state holds the power to administer a real estate agent or salesperson license. That includes authority to receive and investigate complaints from anyone or by the secretary's "own initiative."

The secretary's authority extends to investigation of any person, business or business practice of anyone applying for or holding a broker or salesperson license. Perhaps of most import, though, is the power to suspend or revoke a license for violation of the state's Real Property Law.

Under the new rules, real estate brokers would need to make sure all prospective homebuyers, renters, sellers and landlords receive written notification about their rights under the state civil-rights law. The notification, which would be required at every open house and showing, would be provided by the New York Department of State.

Brokers also would be required to post prominent notices describing protections under the state human-rights law and information about how consumers can file complaints. The notices would be mandated at every office, at open houses and on websites.

The new rules also would require groups that provide state-mandated continuing education to real estate agents to video-record all their classes on fair housing and keep the recordings for a year. Under state law, agents are required to take 22.5 hours of continuing education every two years, including three hours on fair housing, to renew their licenses. Newsday’s investigation revealed that in some classes offered by the Long Island Board of Realtors, instructors were spending far less than three hours discussing fair housing — in one case, 20 minutes — and making comments that experts said risked reinforcing discriminatory attitudes instead of dispelling them.

In a statement, New York Secretary of State Rossana Rosado said her agency "takes all acts of discrimination seriously and works vigorously to enforce the Fair Housing Act as it relates to real estate professionals. These new regulations not only make it clear that discrimination will not be tolerated, they will also help New Yorkers better understand their rights when looking for a place to call home."

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