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State Legislature approves bills to curb housing discrimination

How Newsday told the story: the "Long Island

How Newsday told the story: the "Long Island Divided" front page from Nov. 17, 2019. Credit: Newsday

ALBANY — A wide-ranging package of anti-discrimination bills spurred by Newsday's "Long Island Divided" series about real estate sales practices on Long Island has won final approval in the State Legislature.

The bills would increase fines for violating housing discrimination laws, mandate more anti-bias training and increase biannual brokers’ fees to help pay for deploying undercover homebuyers to test whether real estate agents are "steering" customers to or away from certain neighborhoods based on race.

In total, seven bills sparked by the Newsday series were approved by both houses of the State Legislature.

The State Senate acted in February; the Assembly approved the measures in the final days of the 2021 legislative session, which closed early Friday.

Newsday's investigation found widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The series sparked State Senate hearings and multiple investigations, and then a raft of legislation.

Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, called passage of the bills "a significant accomplishment."

Gross said in an interview Friday, "I feel like it’s a new day for New York state. We've had more attention for fair housing now" than for a long time.

"Since the Newsday investigation and the Senate began its hearings, there has been a steady drumbeat, despite COVID-19," Gross said.

Gross said the bills approved by the Senate and Assembly, "will make a difference."

Gross pointed to provisions for increased training for Realtors against implicit bias, standardized operating procedures for the real estate industry and requirements for state and local housing agencies to identify and begin to overcome segregation patterns or risk the loss of state housing funds.

Under the state measures, the municipalities would have to take "meaningful actions" in zoning and the placement of affordable housing to "further inclusiveness," Gross said.

Notably, one Senate bill that the Assembly omitted would have required the state attorney general’s office to regularly conduct undercover testing of real estate agents’ practices.

Assembly officials said while the bill had support, leaders wanted to see how much money was generated by the new fee hikes before deciding whether to impose the testing mandate on the attorney general's office.

Separately, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal would oversee such undercover testing.

Cuomo has until Dec. 31 to sign or veto the new legislation approved by both houses.

In a three-year investigation published in 2019, Newsday used undercover "testers" in areas stretching from the New York City line to the Hamptons, and from Long Island Sound to the South Shore.

The testers carried hidden microphones and cameras to record interactions with more than 80 real estate agents.

Newsday found evidence that some agents directed minority potential homebuyers toward neighborhoods based on race, and that agents sometimes required preapproved mortgages from Black or Hispanic customers but not from white.

In 40% of the tests, evidence suggested that brokers subjected minorities to disparate treatment compared with whites. Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49% of the time, Hispanics 39% and Asians 19%.

"The blatantly disparate service provided to minority homebuyers that was brought to light in a recent expose was appalling and unacceptable," Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre) said.

Griffin sponsored the bill requiring brokers to establish standard operating procedures and practices.

"Bias has long existed in this industry, but the level of implicit bias we witnessed in this Long Island expose was extremely disturbing and needs to be addressed in a meaningful way," Assemb. Gina Sillitti (D-Manorhaven) said.

Sillitti sponsored legislation to mandate training about implicit bias.

Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights) sponsored two bills in the legislative package: One doubles the fine, to $2,000, the state can impose on a broker or salesperson for fair housing violations. The revenue would be distributed to county-level governments to fight housing discrimination.

Her other measure adds a $30 surcharge to a broker’s biannual license and $10 to a sales person’s license, payable to the attorney general’s office to fund statewide testing and monitoring.

Said Jean-Pierre: "The legislation in this package will go a long way in educating salespeople and brokers, and help the state address the more covert and subtle forms of discrimination that have become all too common."

The New York State Association of Realtors said in a statement it was pleased to support legislation that would "provide thoughtful and meaningful changes to the education and training requirements for real estate licensees."

The association continued: "We believe that paired testing is one of the most effective ways to combat illegal discrimination in housing. To that end, we support the creation of the anti-discrimination housing fund that was part of the legislature's fair housing package."

New legislation approved by the State Senate and Assembly would:

  • Double fines for fair housing violations by brokers or sales agents, to $2,000.
  • Add $30 surcharge to brokers' license fees and $10 for sales licenses to help fund statewide testing and monitoring of real estate agents' practices.
  • Require brokers serving as real estate office managers to exercise supervision over other associate brokers and real estate salespersons.
  • Require state and local housing agencies take steps to identify and reduce segregation patterns as a condition of receiving state funds.
  • Mandate that brokers and sales agents undergo training to identify and reduce implicit bias.
  • Increase the required training for real estate brokers and real estate salespeople relating to fair housing laws and housing discrimination.
  • Require brokers to establish standard operating procedures to ensure prospective buyers are treated equitably.

Source: New York State Assembly; State Senate

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