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Suffolk County test will check for signs of housing discrimination

In response to "Long Island Divided," a 2019

In response to "Long Island Divided," a 2019 Newsday investigation on housing discrimination, Suffolk County will enlist a test to check for unfair treatment of minority potential homebuyers. Credit: Newsday

Suffolk County will launch a program to test for housing discrimination — a response, officials said, to Newsday's 2019 investigation showing that Long Island real estate agents treated minority potential homebuyers differently than white clients.

The county legislature on Tuesday approved a $140,910-contract with Long Island Housing Services Inc. — a Bohemia-based fair housing nonprofit — to test whether real estate agents and mortgage lenders follow fair housing laws or discriminate based on race, ethnicity or other factors, county officials said.

Test results will be used as evidence in prosecutions by human rights agencies, and the potential for fines and penalties could act as a deterrent, said Dawn Lott, executive director of Suffolk’s Human Rights Commission.

"Without the testing," Lott said, "we would be unable to go forward with prosecuting those who have violated the law."

Paired testing is considered by experts to be the best way to investigate housing discrimination. Typically, investigators create fictitious identities to look for homes to buy or rent. Their personas will have similar qualifications on paper, such as income level, but differ on a characteristic such as race. They then compare their treatment by real estate agents, mortgage lenders, landlords or sellers.

Fair housing law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, family status and source of income, among other categories.

The contract follows a 2019 pledge by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone to hire an outside agency to test for housing discrimination after Newsday’s three-year investigation, "Long Island Divided."

Using testing, Newsday's work showed Black testers received unequal treatment by real estate agents 49% of the time, Latinos 39% and Asians 19%. That discrimination, the investigation found, has partly contributed to racial segregation on Long Island.

The county has not done its own fair-housing testing, according to a July report by a county task force created in response to "Long Island Divided."

The new contract "shows a commitment of the county to put teeth into the human rights law" through such enforcement, said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services.

Suffolk also has increased education on fair housing laws for real estate agents to better comply and for potential homebuyers to know their rights, Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.

That effort was done through contracts with Long Island Housing Partnership, a Hauppauge-based agency dedicated to affordable housing, and ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based group.

The Human Rights Commission also is in the process of bringing on additional investigators focusing on housing discrimination, Baird-Streeter said.

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