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OpinionEditorial

Act now for fairness in housing on Long Island

An aerial view of homes in Nassau County.

An aerial view of homes in Nassau County.   Credit: All Island Aerial/Kevin Coughlin

The story of Long Island is in many ways the story of its housing. The creation, location and cost of shelter,  and the search for it, have defined the region for decades.  Housing — inextricably intertwined with jobs, transportation, education, family, friends and wealth — is Long Island's lifeblood and the core of its development.

So it's no wonder that alarm bells sounded here, and around the state, with the publication of Newsday's "Long Island Divided" project. In riveting detail, the series charted evidence of unequal treatment  of minority home buyers and minority communities by some real estate agents. We welcome the calls for action as both necessary and overdue, though possibly still not sufficient. Addressing unjust practices of the past to ensure they are not repeated in the future is critical, but that's not the same as resolving the inequities of the present that these practices have created.

Evidence presented of racial steering was compelling. Using paired testing, the gold standard of discrimination investigations, Newsday found evidence that nearly half of black testers, 39 percent of Hispanic testers and 19 percent of Asian testers received disparate treatment compared  with white testers. Hidden in those dismaying results was a shard of light: In more than half of the cases, real estate agents treated minority testers fairly. But that's not enough.

Progress can be made

Among new, sensible proposals to reduce housing discrimination:

  • State Attorney General Letitia James plans to investigate evidence uncovered by Newsday, and has asked the public for tips about such discrimination.
  • Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said three state agencies will launch a housing discrimination investigation on Long Island, and announced a social media campaign to raise awareness and a hotline for filing complaints. That's good. But Newsday’s series showed that victims of unequal treatment often don’t realize they've been targeted. So how would they know to lodge a complaint? The state must complement these steps with money for enforcement. Cuomo, who has deep experience in housing on the state and federal levels, vowed in 2016 to launch a “groundbreaking” effort to ferret out discrimination in home sales. But the follow-through fell short. Not enough money was allocated to the nonprofit fair-housing groups that do the bulk of paired testing. The groups say they’re ready and eager, but they lack resources that typically come from governments. It’s time for Cuomo to up the state’s ante.
  • The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, after a request by Reps. Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi, also said it will investigate. That's a start. HUD also should abandon its proposed rollback of what's called the disparate impact standard, which holds governments and businesses accountable for discriminatory practices even if they did not intend to discriminate. Weakening it is a terrible idea that would make proving unintentional discrimination more difficult. Disparate impact also has been the best way to attack exclusionary zoning laws used to steer housing construction. HUD also should increase its funding for local governments to educate the public and test for discrimination. 
  • The State Senate's Democratic majority will hold hearings on Long Island next month on housing discrimination, and some state lawmakers are talking about new legislation to help create a fairer housing market. The state, for example, requires training in fair-housing laws for real estate agents, but that training often is inadequate; new legislation to establish more rigorous training standards and accountability for meeting them is essential. Fines for violations could be increased with the money directed to nonprofits for more testing. More funds for paired testing could be raised with a fee on real estate agents.
  • Numerous local elected officials and advocates, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran,  have called for improved training programs, better testing and more education, as have local and national Realtor  groups. County legislatures and their respective human rights commissions should hold hearings to bring more light and heat to the issue; publicity can be an effective eradicant.

All of this is encouraging. Discrimination must be exposed in as close to real time as possible. Progress can be made with persistent effort. But the legacy of racial steering remains — in our divided neighborhoods and, perhaps most sadly and profoundly, in our separate and unequal school systems. That, too, must be addressed. To perpetuate the current system is to deny some of our children a sound education, and to deprive all of our children the richness of growing up with people of other races and cultures. Cloisters of color, forged by hostility and suspicion, only perpetuate that mindset. 

Will online ads discriminate?

The kind of discrimination uncovered by Newsday has existed for decades. But what is the next generation of housing discrimination? Just as the blatant racial covenants of Levittown gave way to more subtle practices, these also will morph as people buy houses in different ways, often online, often with much less contact with agents. Are the algorithms that govern this process vehicles for discrimination? With real estate firms buying digital ads, and immense amounts of personal data available commercially — already being used to focus advertising — will buyers, sellers or communities be targeted in discriminatory ways? How can paired testing for unfair treatment be conducted when buyers locate houses on their own, and contacts between them and agents are minimal?

Good housing, fairly acquired, is precious. As a region, we must finally get this right. Long Island is not unique in being plagued by housing discrimination. But by attacking the problem with vigor, Long Island could lead the way.

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