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Housing bias is put to the test

Three State Senate committees recently released findings and

Three State Senate committees recently released findings and recommendations to eliminate unfair housing bias in the wake of Newsday's "Long Island Divided" investigation.  Credit: Newsday / John Keating

For years, fair housing advocates said the best way to root out discriminatory treatment toward those searching for housing is testing for it. Send people of different races posing as buyers or renters with similar economic backgrounds to the same real estate agents, the advocates said, and see whether they are treated the same. Nationwide results — including a few examples from New York — proved the advocates right:

Testing exposed bias.

Now Long Island is seeing that truth play out in distressingly spectacular fashion. State authorities are cracking down on such bias, with more than 80 investigations of Long Island real estate agents, brokers and instructors. The license of one local agent was revoked — the first time that's happened in New York in more than 20 years — and the state Department of State is moving to suspend or terminate the licenses of 18 other Long Island agents or brokers.

The spur was the recent Newsday investigation called Long Island Divided. The project used pairs of undercover testers — one who was white paired with one who was either Black, Hispanic or Asian — and videotaped their homebuying interactions with 93 Long Island real estate agents and brokers. The results were striking but, sadly, not surprising. The three-year probe found evidence of disparate treatment of 49% of Black testers, 39% of Hispanic testers, and 19% of Asian testers.

More powerful than the numbers were the anecdotes of animus uncovered by Newsday's testers and confirmed by state officials. Derogatory comments made to whites about the Wyandanch and East Hampton school districts. Warnings to a white tester about gang activity in Brentwood, but reassuring comments to a Black tester that "the nicest people" live there. Requiring mortgage prequalification for minority homebuyers but not whites. Many would-be homebuyers did not realize they had received discriminatory treatment until they viewed the recordings, further proving the need for comparative testing.

Also in the state's sights: three instructors whose state-mandated fair-housing lessons for real estate agents were woefully brief in length and inappropriate in subject matter, including offensive statements like "Jewish lightning," a term referring to arson.

The discipline being exacted by state officials is essential to stamp out this pernicious problem, and long overdue. The Department of State and the Division of Human Rights, the two state agencies empowered to discipline real estate agents for discriminatory behavior, told Newsday they have no records of either agency conducting undercover bias testing from 2007 to 2018. Their previous unwillingness or inability to fund or conduct testing programs has been displaced, at least for now, with public eagerness and increased funding from the federal government, Attorney General Letitia James, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration. And the state legislature also is poised to increase agent and broker fees to bring in more than $1 million yearly for testing.

Sustained action is the only way to rid the region of its deeply rooted housing bias. The first steps are underway.

— The editorial board