State Senate set to pass anti-housing discrimination legislation

Originally published in Newsday on February 07, 2021.

ALBANY — The State Senate on Monday is set to approve a series of anti-discrimination bills sparked by a Newsday investigation.

The measures will call for stiffer penalties for housing discrimination, more anti-bias training for real estate agents and an initiative to deploy undercover homebuyers to test whether agents are "steering" customers toward or away from certain neighborhoods.

Once approved by the Senate, the bills will go to the Democratic-led State Assembly for consideration.

The action is triggered by "Long Island Divided," a Newsday investigation that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of minority homebuyers. The Senate followed it with a series of hearings to gather testimony from agents as well as fair-housing advocates.

"Honestly, it’s because of the article that we realized we have this problem," Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) said.

Among the bills, one compels the state attorney general’s office to conduct regular "fair housing testing" in which undercover would-be homebuyers would engage with real estate agents to determine if anti-discrimination laws are being followed.

"At the hearings, we heard from a lot of brokers and it became obvious some of them were not aware of what they were doing," said Kaplan, sponsor of the bill. "This [bill] will allow us to see how we are progressing."

The bill, if eventually signed into law, gives the state 180 days to begin establishing a testing program.

Other measures slated for Senate approval Monday include:

  • 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.
     

In a three-year investigation published in 2019, Newsday sent testers carrying hidden cameras and microphones to meet more than 80 real estate agents and record 240 hours of interactions. The matching tests were in areas that went from the New York City line to the Hamptons and from Long Island Sound to the South Shore. Thirty-nine of the tests paired Black and white testers, 31 matched Hispanic and white testers and 16 involved Asian and white testers.

The findings included evidence that some agents directed minority potential homebuyers toward homes in neighborhoods with comparatively higher concentrations of minority residents and that agents sometimes required preapproved mortgages from Black or Hispanic customers but not white ones.

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