State AG to investigate reports of unequal treatment in LI housing

Michael Gormley for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

ALBANY — State Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday said she will investigate evidence of unequal treatment of minority prospective home buyers by real estate agents revealed in Newsday’s “Long Island Divided” stories this week, saying the articles are a call for action.

“Fair access to housing is a basic civil right that all New Yorkers, including Long Island residents, are entitled to,” said James in a statement issued Tuesday. “The pattern of discrimination uncovered by Newsday’s intrepid reporting raises significant concerns and calls for action.

“I have directed the Civil Rights Bureau in my office to investigate these serious allegations and we encourage Long Island residents to report any instances of housing discrimination,” James said.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the housing market based on race, color or national origin. The Civil Rights Bureau of the state Attorney General’s Office enforces that law as well as the state Human Rights law, which protects against discrimination in housing. Under those measures, real estate agents are generally prohibited from describing the racial makeup of a community or giving unequal treatment to clients based on race or ethnicity.

The statement said the investigation would include claims of “steering” minority buyers to more integrated neighborhoods and reports that some agents required mortgage preapproval and other restrictions before they would show a property to a prospective buyer who was African American, Hispanic or Asian-American. The statement indicated the investigation would examine the actions of real estate salespeople as well as their companies.

The attorney general’s office said investigations of this type can result in civil penalties. The office said it normally doesn’t announce investigations, but it is seeking the help of the public to provide tips that investigators can dig into.

The newspaper’s three-year investigation used undercover “testers” carrying hidden cameras and microphones. The report, for example, found some real estate agents appeared to steer minority men and women posing as prospective buyers to minority neighborhoods, while white “testers” were often directed to predominantly white neighborhoods. 

“I’m very pleased that New York State Attorney General Tish James is going to investigate this matter,” said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove). “This crisis is not a new development. It has been going on Long Island for close to 100 years if not more and it is emblematic of institutionalized racism that is not only prevalent in certain areas of Long Island, but throughout the United States. It’s time we confront this.”

James’ “investigation into housing discrimination on Long Island is welcome and an important step in holding perpetrators accountable,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). “But a review of the entire system and whether legislation might help create a more fair and equitable housing market is also in order and something that should be taken up in Albany as soon as possible.”

On Monday, the National Urban League called on James to investigate practices revealed in the articles. 

“The type of discrimination that Newsday found is particularly insidious because it can remain in the shadows indefinitely,” Urban League president and chief executive Marc H. Morial said. “Until the testers compared notes, they had no idea they’d experienced vastly different treatment by the real estate agents.”

The Fair Housing Justice Center on Monday also called on state licensing regulators to investigate.

“We will do everything in our power under the law to protect the civil rights of New Yorkers and ensure that no one is denied housing based on their personal background,” James said Tuesday.