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More work to do on fair housing

Aerial views of homes in Levittown, Nassau County.

Aerial views of homes in Levittown, Nassau County. The State Senate recently held a hearing in response to Newsday's "Long Island Divided" series. Credit: All Island Aerial / Kevin Coughlin

A remarkable scene occurred at the recent New York State Senate hearing on fair housing.

Two real estate agents, among the many whose disparate treatment of minority homebuyers was captured on tape in Newsday’s "Long Island Divided" series, acknowledged not always understanding the effects of the words they say to clients and admitted that there always is more to learn. They said they were sorry.

And then they were thanked by Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) — for being the only ones of more than 20 real estate professionals who testified who apologized for their actions.

The others — each of whom had to be subpoenaed for the virtual hearing after ignoring requests to attend a hearing last year — defended, tried to explain away or attempted to talk around their behavior. Behaviors such as insisting on mortgage preapproval for homebuyers of color but not white homebuyers before handing out listings. Or making derogatory remarks about minority neighborhoods and one community where, as one agent put it, Latinos "took over." The testimony concluded with the disheartening realization by the senators that apparently no agents had been disciplined by their firms for their conduct.

The good news is that the senators who grilled those agents and Realtors have lots of good legislation teed up to address this insidious problem. The state Department of State has launched 35 investigations stemming from Newsday’s landmark investigation. The state Division of Human Rights has begun a public information campaign to inform residents about fair-housing rights and created a hotline for reporting violations. And other state agencies, levels of government and fair-housing groups are issuing regulations and conducting campaigns and investigations. Finding funding to keep all of that going amid pandemic-related budget shortfalls is a challenge that must be met.

Among the bills awaiting action, many written by Long Island lawmakers, are measures to mandate implicit bias awareness training for all real estate brokers and agents every two years, as well as training on topics like the history of housing segregation and the lack of access to housing opportunity that disadvantaged groups have experienced for decades. Another bill would increase penalties, including fines, for fair housing violations. One would establish a state fair housing paired-testing program, like the one used by Newsday that revealed that 49% of Black homebuyers and 40% of all minority homebuyers were subjected to disparate treatment compared with white homebuyers. Passage would build on recent successes, like legislation signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to enable the suspension or revocation of licenses of real estate professionals if they engage in discriminatory behavior.

The real estate industry also has announced some reforms to attack bias. But the State Senate hearing destroyed the notion that everyone in the business accepts that it has a problem.

Housing discrimination and segregation have plagued Long Island for generations. The effort to end this injustice must be as relentless as the forces that created it.

— The editorial board