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Suffolk Fair Housing task force seeks to combat historic segregation on LI

Logo for Newsday's investigative piece, "Long Island Divided."

Logo for Newsday's investigative piece, "Long Island Divided." Credit: Newsday

Suffolk County's Fair Housing Task Force called for better education and enforcement efforts against housing discrimination Tuesday, seeking to combat historic segregation that continues to impact so many parts of life on Long Island.

The task force, made up of Suffolk legislators and housing and human rights experts, convened for the first time Tuesday in response to a Newsday investigation published last year that uncovered widespread evidence of discrimination by Long Island real estate agents.

Task force members said they were committed to examining the systemic policies that contribute to housing discrimination. They called on officials to improve real estate agent training and teach home seekers their rights. They said there needs to be more affordable housing to diversify areas and more funding to investigate discrimination. 

Georgette Grier-Key, president of the Brookhaven Town NAACP, said housing discrimination will continue if people do not understand its history and its impacts. Segregation limits educational opportunities and access to wealth, among so many other consequences, she said.

“It really affects your entire life, your children’s life, generations,” Grier-Key said.

Grier-Key said officials need to educate the public on why steering people of color to certain communities is racist and how the Island came to be segregated – including past policies that prevented Black homeowners from accessing federal loans and racial covenants that barred them from owning homes in areas like Levittown.

The county legislature approved creating the task force last year after a three-year Newsday investigation showed minority testers posing as homebuyers were treated differently while looking at houses than white testers. The task force was charged with identifying ways to strengthen the county's human rights law and combat housing discrimination. 

The group’s first meeting, delayed by the pandemic, came amid a national reckoning about systemic racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said.

Legis. Samuel Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), who chairs the task force, said he sees how people are steered in his legislative district: white homeseekers are shown homes in Bay Shore, Black homebuyers in Central Islip and Latino homebuyers in Brentwood.

Yet the number of housing discrimination cases reported to the county’s human rights commission is surprisingly low, executive director Dawn Lott said. She estimates there are only about 10 cases awaiting adjudication from administrative judges, adding that people often don’t realize they’re being discriminated against.

"The numbers really do not reflect what's going on," Lott said. 

Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, said there needs to be tangible consequences for real estate agents who violate the law, such as being named publicly, getting prosecuted and losing their licenses.

“As long as people get away with what they’re doing and continue to make money, they won’t change their behavior,” Gross said.

After Newsday’s investigation, the Long Island Board of Realtors has worked to increase member and public education, step up testing, conduct implicit bias trainings and compile fair housing complaint resources, among other efforts, said Bo Patten, vice president of government affairs.

Suffolk officials are also negotiating contracts to provide public education and training and have begun hiring another human rights commission investigator, among other measures following Newsday's investigation, said Marykate Guilfoyle, a spokeswoman, for County Executive Steve Bellone.