State Senate approves 11 anti-housing discrimination bills

Originally published in Newsday on February 08, 2021.

ALBANY — The state Senate approved a wide-ranging package of anti-housing discrimination bills sparked by a Newsday investigation, including an initiative to deploy undercover homebuyers to test whether real estate agents are "steering" customers to or away from certain neighborhoods based on race.

The 11-bill package, which now goes to the state Assembly, also includes stiffer penalties for housing discrimination, more anti-bias training for real estate agents and a path to pursue punitive damages for discrimination.

The action is triggered by "Long Island Divided," a Newsday investigation that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers. The report used undercover "testers" carrying hidden microphones and cameras to record interactions with more than 80 real estate agents.

A bill to require the state Attorney General’s office to regularly do similar testing was a keystone of the legislative package, officials said.

"Essentially, this bill is taking Newsday’s groundbreaking investigation statewide and making it an element of state law," Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D-Nyack) said shortly before the bill was approved, 63-0.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck), who said: "It’s going to take a lot of work to address this problem, including better education for real estate professionals, and stronger enforcement of fair housing laws, but it’s something we must do in order to protect the American Dream for all of our neighbors."

In a three-year investigation published in 2019, Newsday used testers in areas running from the New York City line to the Hamptons and from Long Island Sound to the South Shore.

The findings included evidence that some agents directed minority potential homebuyers toward neighborhoods based on race and that agents sometimes required preapproved mortgages from Black or Hispanic customers but not white ones.

In 40% of the tests, evidence suggested that brokers subjected minorities to disparate treatment compared with whites. Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49% of the time; Hispanics 39% and Asians 19%.

Other measures the Senate approved Monday:

  • Increasing the maximum fine from $1,000 to $2,000 on real estate licensees who violate discrimination laws, with 25% of the proceeds to go to a new housing fund.
  • Adding $30 to a broker’s biannual license fee and $10 to a salesperson’s fee to be used to help fund fair-housing testing.
  • Requiring agents to take additional hours of "implicit bias" training as part of the license renewal process.
  • Allowing the state Division of Human Rights to award compensatory and punitive damages to discrimination victims.
  • Requiring brokers to compile and disclose demographic data to the state, similar to federal requirements on mortgages.