ALBANY — The State Senate on Thursday began issuing 25 subpoenas to real estate agents and companies to probe allegations of housing discrimination brought to light in Newsday's "Long Island Divided" series, officials said.
The State Legislature rarely resorts to subpoenas. But the move became necessary to compel testimony after 67 of 68 industry representatives failed to appear at a hearing on the discrimination issue in December, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said.
“The Senate Majority hearing was an opportunity for all parties to discuss the Newsday investigation and findings of institutionalized discrimination, and help determine how to combat these practices. The individuals and groups subpoenaed by the Senate Majority refused to participate in this hearing,” Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said in a statement.
“These subpoenas will help us as we work to end racist and biased housing practices throughout New York State,” Stewart-Cousins said.
The subpoenas compel witnesses to appear at a Senate hearing scheduled for April 17 at the Nassau County legislative offices in Mineola. The hearing will be held by a joint panel of the Senate housing, investigations and consumer protection committees.
“Due to the fact so many of the Realtors and their firms refused to appear and answer for their actions at our December hearing, we are taking the extraordinary step of issuing legislative subpoenas,” Sen. James Skoufis (D-Cornwall), chairman of the investigations committee, said in a statement. “Subpoenaed individuals are obliged to attend our April hearing, provide testimony and submit any information and documents that the Senate requests. Failure to do so will result in legal action.”
The Senate probe is just one of several announced after publication of the Newsday series.
The newspaper’s three-year investigation found evidence of widespread separate and unequal treatment of minority homebuyers and minority communities on Long Island. The investigation deployed undercover “testers” carrying hidden cameras and microphones.
The findings included evidence that potential homebuyers were steered to neighborhoods based on race and that some agents required mortgage preapproval from black customers but not whites. Fully 49% of African American testers, 39% of Hispanic testers and 19% of Asian testers received what housing experts deemed unequal treatment by real estate agents.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James also have launched investigations.
At the December hearing, the head of the New York State Association of Realtors said the trade group was “appalled” by Newsday’s findings.
Moses Seuram, association president, said the group immediately suspended its training programs as ineffective and would begin revamping them. He said the group wanted to work with lawmakers to be “part of the solution moving forward.”
State lawmakers have proposed legislation directly responding to the Newsday investigation.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon), would expand the state’s authority to suspend or revoke a real estate agent’s license.
The state already has power to suspend a broker’s license for fraudulent practices and misleading advertising. The new bill would add another cause: “violation of the human rights law,” a reference to the state’s anti-discrimination statute.
Another proposal, sponsored by Jean-Pierre and Skoufis, would mandate licensees to take six hours — instead of the current three — of training on fair housing laws.
Gaughran criticized agents who “had the audacity to blow off the State Senate’s hearing on this important topic.”
Newsday’s probe "revealed a horrifying and pervasive pattern of discrimination in Long Island’s housing market,” Gaughran said.
The April forum will give lawmakers a chance to “hold these agents' feet to the fire and demand answers to root out the horrific discrimination that remains pervasive in our own backyard.”