Long Island Divided, Newsday's extensive investigation, revealed evidence of racial...

Long Island Divided, Newsday's extensive investigation, revealed evidence of racial steering. Credit: Tim Foley

Segregation is deeply entrenched on Long Island. Sometimes subtle, sometimes hiding in plain sight, it has stained the region for decades.

But Long Island didn’t become one of the nation’s most segregated suburbs by accident. It was purposeful.

Zoning codes, mortgage redlining, blockbusting, school district boundaries, major roadways and outright racism, both structural and individual, work in concert to cement the Island’s divisions.

An equally essential part of the formula is racial steering practiced by some real estate agents who help funnel home buyers into some neighborhoods and keep them out of others, based on the color of the buyers’ skin or their ethnicity.

Newsday’s investigation revealing evidence of steering pulls the scab from the region’s long-festering wound. In 40 percent of the dozens of tests of real estate agents conducted by Newsday, members of minority groups posing as potential home buyers were treated unequally and unfairly, despite providing similar financial backgrounds and similar housing goals as their white would-be home-buyer counterparts. For black testers, nearly 50 percent received disparate treatment. Frequently, white buyers were pushed toward mostly white areas, minority buyers were directed to more integrated neighborhoods, and agents recommended largely minority areas to virtually no one.

There is a silver lining of sorts in the probe’s results. In more than half of the cases, real estate agents treated minority home buyers fairly. That’s progress when measured against such dismal aspects of Long Island history as the origins of Levittown, where the black and white of contract language in rental covenants explicitly barred blacks from living there.

But it is not progress enough when one remembers that federal civil rights legislation is more than 50 years old, and that federal fair housing laws passed in the 1960s banned racial steering. Newsday’s investigation supports what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: The legislation moved the discrimination underground. Once blatant and overt, steering now is cloaked in shadows, disguised in coded language and sometimes the product of unconscious bias on the part of agents.

Some of Newsday’s minority testers did not realize they had been subjected to unequal treatment until they saw on video the way they were treated compared with their white counterparts. Some were brought to tears.  Because white testers posing as would-be home buyers were similarly unaware, it’s easy to understand how newer Long Islanders might not understand this aspect of the region’s poisonous history.

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The treatment experienced by Newsday's testers was sadly familiar. Among the sins committed by agents who the evidence suggested engaged in steering:

  • Telling a black tester that houses in a white neighborhood were out of his price range while showing them to a white tester of similar supposed means.
  • Warning a white tester about gang violence in Brentwood while directing a black tester to houses in that community.
  • Telling a white tester that four overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods are never recommended while directing a black tester away from overwhelmingly white communities.
  • Requesting that minority testers get mortgage preapproval and prove their financial qualifications before showing them houses or listings, and not demanding the same of similar white testers.

One begins to understand how Long Island’s unwritten boundaries hold firm when agents recommend Elmont for a Hispanic home buyer but not a white one, Freeport for a black tester but not a white one, Plainview for an Asian buyer, and Wantagh, Seaford and Massapequa for white house seekers. One senses the insidiousness buried in the code used by agents who suggest to white testers to check out who’s patronizing convenience stores in a particular area at night. Translation: You won’t want to live there.

Researchers say some agents might think they’re only following the preferences of neighborhoods and homeowners who, for example, do not want to sell to black buyers, and that if they do bring minority buyers to a white neighborhood, they won’t get more listings. But that defense — that your own prejudicial actions should be excused because they’re based on the prejudices of others — is indefensible.

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It’s easy to say that steering is wrong philosophically. And that it is against the law. But what’s worse, it also does actual damage to real people.

Steering robs buyers of the choice of neighborhood they would like to live in. It robs neighborhoods of diversity, and children of the opportunity to experience the richness of growing up with kids from other races and other cultures. It breeds insularity, suspicion and hostility.

Most home buyers, regardless of race, want to buy the best house they can afford in the best school district they can afford. Here, the implications of steering are enormous. For real estate agents, school districts often are barometers for neighborhoods. And some agents act as gatekeepers.

So they prevent minority buyers from moving into mostly white, higher-performing school districts with greater resources, and instead channel them and their children into poorer, lower-performing districts with fewer resources. That perpetuates race-based inequities in education and ensures that the demographics of success and failure never change.

Newsday’s editorial board once referred to the region’s educational segregation, where superb school districts sit side by side with those that struggle, as “the shame of the suburbs.” Thanks partly to steering, it still is.

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Poor enforcement of fair housing laws and a lack of good training compound the behavior of real estate agents. Both must change. That requires more money and more time.

Paired testing is the gold standard of housing discrimination investigations. The tests are expensive — $2,400 to test a landlord for rental discrimination, as much as $6,000 to test a real estate agent for discrimination in selling homes. It takes time to do an investigation, and the process is cumbersome. But without enforcement, there is no accountability. And the tests work as a deterrent. One real estate agent told a Hispanic tester in Newsday’s probe that she was not allowed to discuss school districts but added, “I can — if you promise not to be working for the state.”

That’s where training in fair housing laws comes into play. It’s required by the state for real estate agents, but as Newsday's investigation reveals, instructors from the residential brokerage industry often provide less than the required three hours. And the information they provide is often wrong or irrelevant.

The problems can be as basic as failing to explain which groups of people are protected by fair housing laws. Experts criticized remarks made by one instructor whose class was attended by Newsday reporters as possibly reinforcing racial and religious stereotypes. Training clearly is needed — agents need to know about discriminatory practices past and present to be able to avoid them — but it must be improved and monitored for accuracy and relevance.

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Long Island’s sad history of segregation endures. We can debate whether it’s right that some people choose to live only with those they perceive as being similar to them. But there is no debate that Newsday's tests showed that people are being denied the right to choose to live among those who are different from them racially.

That’s wrong, and the real estate practices that enables it must end. Long Island’s real estate agents should become agents of change, not agents of division. Only then can they help redraw the portrait of Long Island they helped paint as a place where the treatment of minorities has been unequal and unfair.

Read the Newsday editorial board's acknowledgement of the way the paper handled Levittown's origins and growth.