Times Union: New York's Legislators Reckon with Systemic Racism in Housing

Originally published in the Albany Times Union

On July 19, 2020, Amanda Fries of the Albany Times Union reported on the efforts of Senator Kavanagh and his colleagues to address longstanding racial disparities that New Yorkers face in obtaining housing. The article references Senator Kavanagh's push for an extended eviction moratorium in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for rent and mortgage relief, and for a range of legislation addressing fair housing concerns that arose at a joint hearing held in December by the Housing Committee, chaired by Kavanagh, and the Investigations and Consumer Affairs Committees, chaired respectively by Senators James Skoufis and Kevin Thomas. A second hearing on this topic was postponed due to the onset of the pandemic, but is expected to be rescheduled later in 2020. The full text of this story is below; the original version is available via the link above.

New York's Legislators Reckon with Systemic Racism in Housing
By Amanda Fries
July 19, 2020

ALBANY - Before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, state lawmakers were making strides to address systemic racism in housing practices.

Riding on the heels of an earlier passage of tenant protections, legislators convened a hearing late last year to examine discriminatory practices in Long Island’s real estate market whereby realtors steered people of color to certain homes and neighborhoods — findings that were originally disclosed in a three-year investigation by Newsday.

Legislative leaders had subpoenaed multiple real estate agencies to probe the alleged discriminatory practices, and had planned a hearing in April, but that was derailed by COVID-19.

The pandemic has only further highlighted the longstanding disparities in housing practices and pushed policymakers to reckon with the systemic issues ingrained in the process.

"I think we can all see the coronavirus has, sadly, magnified the inequities in every part of our lives, and housing is no different," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first Black female leader in the state Senate. "Because of the practices of segregation and inferior housing for Black communities and brown communities, the ability to deal with COVID, having the social distancing and all of the kinds of things that would be required to have a safer outcome during a situation like this for far too many families of color don't exist because the options were never there."

Housing policies nationwide have deep roots in racism and injustice, from the displacement of Native Americans to the discriminatory practices of the 1930s New Deal Era of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which “redlined” areas that the American government deemed unsafe for investment. Those areas were typically racially diverse urban neighborhoods, and the consequences are still felt today with those communities suffering from divestment and concentrations of poverty.

“There have been well-documented racial disparities within housing for a long time. Some of them are about the quality and cost, and others are about where affordable housing is available,” said Solomon Greene, a housing policy expert at Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “We’re paying a lot of attention now on the surge of evictions we’re already seeing in some states and expected when moratoriums are lifted in others.”

Since COVID-19 made its way to New York, lawmakers have warned of a looming housing crisis if significant resources aren’t dedicated to ensuring people don’t lose their homes because of their inability to pay rent or mortgage payments amid a public health crisis.

How it’s handled will have racial justice implications, Greene said, as those who struggle most with housing security are people of color. They are more likely to hold lower paying jobs and rent their homes. People of color also have reported being more uncertain of their ability to pay rent during the pandemic compared to their white counterparts, Greene said.

State lawmakers said as the pandemic inundated New York, the focus became ensuring residents had the basic needs.

“Figuring out how to keep people in their homes is going to be the focus,” said state Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse. “It would be great if we could take the imminent reshuffling of people in their homes to promote a more racially diverse approach to housing people. I think it’s going to be such a crisis that we’re going to have to focus on making sure people get enough resources to have a roof over their head.”

While $100 million in federal funds has been allocated for rental assistance to the most needy New Yorkers, legislators said much more will be necessary in order to avoid a housing crisis.

Manhattan Democratic Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who chairs the Senate housing committee, said efforts to create thoughtful legislation and policy that both addresses current issues and aims to dismantle the systemic problems are being pursued.

“I think a crisis like this has a real danger of exacerbating inequalities in our society and the way to prevent that is to ensure we are proactively addressing the underlying economic crisis as well as the public health crisis,” he said.

That includes pushing for an extension of the eviction moratorium and additional funding for rental and mortgage assistance, but also continuing the efforts that were re-energized with a shift in power from the 2018 elections, Kavanagh said.

“Things that have languished for a very long time moved very rapidly and in (a) dramatic way because of the change in the Legislature,” he said of Democrats taking control of the Senate. “We took big steps forward. This was an issue that I think we were ready to move on this year.”

That includes ensuring financial resources to do fair housing tests — dispatching a diverse group of people to seek out housing in a region and analyzing how they are treated; passing good-cause eviction protections; pursuing policies and programs that ensure affordable, quality housing; as well as a statewide affirmative fair housing policy, legislators said.

Kavanagh said he has proposed a fair housing policy since the federal government rolled back its policy earlier this year. The policy required cities and towns receiving federal funding to examine their local housing patterns for racial bias and to design a plan to address any bias.

Kavanagh and Stewart-Cousins also pointed to legislation proposed by Sen. James Gaughran that would revoke or suspend the license of a real estate broker or salesman found using discriminatory tactics, a measure proposed in response to the issues uncovered in Long Island. This bill could be enacted on this year as legislators return for session on Monday.

"We're working on a number of things, but I think that any opportunity we have to educate and stop discriminatory practices and push for a fairer and more just society in every area, including housing, is where you will find our conference," Stewart-Cousins said.