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Albany nears OK of anti-discrimination bill sparked by Newsday series

State Sen. James Gaughran speaks during an event

State Sen. James Gaughran speaks during an event in Bethpage Monday, June 29, 2020.  Credit: Barry Sloan

ALBANY — New York lawmakers have reached a deal on a new bill, sparked by a Newsday investigation, targeting real estate discrimination by allowing the state to suspend or revoke agents’ licenses.

The state already has the power to suspend a broker’s license for fraudulent practices, misleading advertising and other causes. The new bill would add another cause: “Violation of the human rights law,” a reference to the state’s anti-discrimination statute.

The Senate approved the bill, 59-1, Wednesday. The Assembly expected to follow suit either late Wednesday or Thursday.

The bill was sponsored by two Long Island Democrats, Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights).

“This legislation will ensure that real estate agents who violate New York's Human Rights Law by ‘steering’ minority families toward certain communities, or other racist practices that deny individuals the dignity of choosing their home and neighborhood, face license revocation,” Gaughran said in a statement.

A Newsday special report, “Long Island Divided,” found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority communities and minority potential homebuyers. Covering three years and dozens of real estate agents across Nassau and Suffolk counties, the findings included evidence that potential homebuyers were steered to neighborhoods based on race and that agents required preapproval for mortgages from black customers but not white ones.

The Newsday report led to investigations by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and the State Legislature. Earlier this year, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the State Senate had issued 31 subpoenas to compel testimony from some of the biggest real estate companies in New York.

Gaughran said the Newsday stories and undercover videos prompted him to draft the legislation.

“When the series came out, I read it and looked at some of those videos … and I looked up the license requirements and I was kind of surprised that violations of the human rights law was not listed specifically as grounds for which an agent’s license can be revoked or suspended,” Gaughran said shortly before the Senate voted on his bill. “I think this is the ultimate hammer that is needed.”

The senator said virtually all the brokers he subsequently spoke to were “aghast” at videos that showed some steering customers to or away from a neighborhood because of its demographics.

He said he believes most brokers follow the law and don’t discriminate “but I think there are some people who are never going to get it and they need to know there will be extreme consequences if you practice this activity.”

Jean-Pierre called the bill a “no brainer.” She noted many real estate companies, such as Zillow, backed the legislation.

“This is not an attack on the real estate industry. It’s really about taking those bad apples out of the industry,” the Democrat said.

The broker bill was one of several linked to Long Island that the Legislature intended to approve this week.

Among them, it passed legislation that gives the Public Service Commission more authority to force the Long Island Power Authority to implement management and operational reforms. Supporters said it removes LIPA’s ability to ignore PSC-recommended reforms.

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