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Report shows NY starting to take housing bias seriously, advocate says

A neighborhood of houses in Mineola is seen

A neighborhood of houses in Mineola is seen in this aerial photo (looking west) on March 1, 2020. Credit: Newsday/John Keating

ALBANY — After years of not taking discrimination against homebuyers seriously, the State Senate has taken a major step forward with a new set of findings and recommendations for overhauling the practice of real estate, an anti-discrimination advocate said Wednesday.

Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, said the key is will the State Legislature follow through.

At issue is a report the Senate issued Wednesday, which was sparked by "Long Island Divided," a special, three-year Newsday investigation, published in 2019, that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers.

The Democratic-led State Senate followed up with hearings, issuing subpoenas to dozens of agents and companies that at first refused to testify. Its process culminated with their report Wednesday.

Democrats made 14 recommendations for changing laws and practices, ranging from launching an ongoing set of undercover testers to see if real estate agents are following the law to increasing penalties for violations to encouraging companies to hire more minorities and open branches in minority communities.

The New York State Association of Realtors didn’t comment on the Senate recommendations. But several Long Island real estate brokers said they’d back tougher enforcement of fair housing laws, even if they didn’t support all the Senate proposals.

Some of the proposals "aren’t harsh enough," said Stephan Mahabir, owner of Exit Realty Advantage in Baldwin. He said fines for fair-housing violations should be increased to more than the proposed $2,000.

"I want it to be something you wouldn’t forget," Mahabir said, though he didn’t offer a specific figure. "I would think that if I broke a pretty serious law, that it [the consequence] would be life-altering, so I wouldn’t do it again."

Newsday, using undercover testers to meet with real estate agents, found some agents directed minority homebuyers toward homes in neighborhoods with comparatively higher concentrations of minority residents and sometimes required preapproved mortgages from Black or Hispanic customers, but not white ones.

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

Senate officials said they plan to approve bills next month to implement some of the recommendations. It then would be up to the Democrat-led Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also a Democrat, to back the changes.

Gross, who has led the anti-discrimination group for two decades, said the Senate agenda is the first real attempt to deal with the issue in recent memory.

"I am unaware of anything that comes close to this in this state. This is a very significant step," Gross said. "Will this suddenly mean we have no housing discrimination and we have dismantled residential discrimination? No. But it does mean if we are diligent, if the state is diligent, we can really begin to make a difference."

Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said the subsequent hearings revealed a "fundamental misunderstanding, by the agents and brokers, about what housing discrimination is."

Mahabir said he believes agents should be required to undergo more training in fair housing and other topics. He also agreed with lawmakers’ views that many of the agents and brokers who testified at the hearings expressed little or no contrition.

"There was a lot of denial … very little accountability," said Mahabir. "Understanding you did something wrong and showing remorse for it really is the first step to improving."

Richard Amato, a broker with Keller Williams Realty of Greater Nassau in Garden City who testified at a State Senate public hearing last year, said he is not yet familiar with all the recommendations in the report, but he said generally agreed with stricter enforcement.

George Castera, who owns Castera Realty Corp. on the Nautical Mile in Freeport, supports higher penalties, more undercover testing and standardized procedures for agents.

The state, Castera said, "should test every single office, every single agent, every single broker…. The good people are not doing it [discriminating], and the testers will see that."

But Castera, who is Black, said he does not support encouraging brokerages to hire more minority agents and open more branches in largely minority areas. "Just do everything equally and there won’t be a problem," he said.

A spokesman for Realogy Holdings Corp., whose brands include Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Corcoran Group and Sotheby’s International Realty, said in a statement, "While we need to review the New York State Senate report in greater detail, we fully support and are committed to eliminating discrimination in housing and the real estate industry."

Realogy’s efforts to address discrimination include seeking out minority agents, employees and franchise owners, and adding fair housing training that includes a focus on unconscious bias and the history and impact of systemic racism, the spokesman said.

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