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Real estate industry groups will overhaul fair housing training after Newsday investigation

The Long Island Board of Realtors has temporarily

The Long Island Board of Realtors has temporarily halted its anti-bias training program and suspended all instruction by four teachers named in Newsday's investigation, the trade group's chief executive, Tessa Hultz, said Monday. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Long Island and state real estate industry groups are suspending their fair housing training programs and seeking out independent groups to offer new anti-bias instruction, citing Newsday’s three-year investigation into housing discrimination on Long Island.

The Long Island Board of Realtors has temporarily halted its own anti-bias training program and suspended all instruction by four teachers named in Newsday's investigation while it revamps its program, the trade group’s chief executive, Tessa Hultz, said in an interview Monday.

“I see positive outcomes coming as a result of it,” Hultz said of Newsday’s investigation. “Fair housing is a very important issue, and this raised the dialogue on it.”

The New York State Association of Realtors also suspended its anti-bias training program in response to Newsday’s investigation, said the group's chief executive, Duncan R. Mackenzie.

“We are requiring all of our instructors that want to teach fair housing to go through a training course that will be run by an independent fair housing group before they can teach for us again,” Mackenzie said. The real estate industry association is in talks with five nonprofit housing groups throughout the state, including the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York City and CNY Fair Housing in Syracuse, he said.

New York's Department of State will step up its monitoring of industry training programs as well. The agency, which licenses agents and brokers and oversees their mandated continuing education, "will be expanding upon its audits of continuing education courses and instructors by conducting random, unannounced audits to ensure that courses are being delivered in a manner consistent with course delivery regulations," an agency official said. 

Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center and a Newsday fair housing consultant, said state officials must "tighten up their screening of instructors and the curriculum that's being offered, to make sure that it meets their standards and actually addresses key fair housing issues."

New York requires real estate agents and all but the most experienced brokers to take 22.5 hours of continuing education, including three hours on fair housing, to renew their licenses every two years. Starting in 2021, all brokers will be required to undergo the training. 

The overhauls of the Long Island and state real estate industry anti-discrimination training programs, and the state's increased oversight, come in the wake of a story in Newsday’s “Long Island Divided” series that described six LIBOR classes attended by Newsday reporters. Experts on fair-housing training reviewed reporters’ notes and transcripts, and they said in five of the six classes, the instruction was inaccurate, incomplete and confusing, with time spent on the topic ranging from 20 minutes to two hours. The state mandates three hours of instruction, with optional breaks of 10 minutes for each hour.

Hultz said LIBOR is reviewing course outlines and audiovisual materials for its fair housing classes to determine whether they meet time and educational requirements, and she said she hopes the process will be complete by the end of the year.

In the meantime, she said, “we’re bringing in outside experts to teach the fair housing classes.”

LIBOR, which provides education and advocacy for its members and their clients, is in talks with the Long Island Housing Partnership, a Hauppauge-based nonprofit affordable-housing group, and other organizations to offer anti-bias training, said Hultz, who joined LIBOR in February. LIBOR also expects to have the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission offer instruction, a LIBOR spokeswoman said.

Long Island Housing Partnership’s fair housing education coordinator, Sharon Mullon, said she was notified Monday that she has been certified by the New York Department of State to offer continuing education on fair housing for real estate agents and brokers, and she expects to offer fair-housing instruction through LIBOR. 

Mullon said she has received more than 300 hours of fair-housing training and has taught fair housing at local colleges. She said her instruction will include detailed information on fair-housing laws and the responsibilities of real estate agents, including topics such as unconscious bias.  

LIBOR has suspended instruction by the four teachers whose classes were cited by experts as deficient, Hultz said. The instructors named were Dianne Scalza, Donald Scanlon, Linda Damico and Cathleen Nolan. In addition, as of this month Nolan is no longer an attorney for the group, Hultz said. Hultz declined to comment further on the instructors and attorney.

Scalza declined to comment, referring questions to Hultz. Damico also declined to comment. Nolan said, “I’m not involved with LIBOR anymore and it’s a direct result of that,” but she declined to comment further on Newsday’s story about fair housing training.

Scanlon, whose class included two hours of fair-housing instruction plus nearly an hour on 10 other topics and a short break, said he intends to get reinstated as a fair-housing instructor. He said he believes his class provided sufficient training but that Newsday’s reporting “is just going to make me work harder at sharpening my skills and sharpening my delivery of my material.”  

Last week, LIBOR’s board directed its grievance committee to investigate whether its member agents named in “Long Island Divided” violated the code of ethics. The committee will meet early next month, Hultz said.

Newsday's investigation used undercover "testers" who used hidden cameras to record their interactions with real estate agents. The tests uncovered evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers. 

Members of the real estate industry trade groups must abide by a code of ethics that includes anti-bias provisions. Consequences of violating the code range from being required to attend classes to fines of up to $15,000, or suspension or revocation of membership. Trade group committees conduct hearings to consider accusations.  

“Your reporting turned up potential fair housing violations,” Hultz said. “Yet in the last year, we've only received one complaint related to our article 10, which is related to nondiscriminatory behavior. So there does appear to be an underreporting problem, and I think that that's what Governor Cuomo is very focused on, is creating a consumer awareness campaign. And I think that that will be very good for everybody.”

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