“What would we discipline them for?” Brokers deny discrimination at heated hearing

Sylvia Varnham O'Regan

September 18, 2020

Originally published in The Real Deal on September 18, 2020.

One by one, Long Island real estate agents appeared before U.S. senators on Thursday to respond to allegations of discrimination stemming from a 2019 Newsday exposé.

They weren’t there by choice: The Senate was forced to issue subpoenas after 67 agents and company representatives failed to appear at a planned hearing earlier this year.

Many were defiant, insisting they had not discriminated against anyone or violated any fair housing laws. That was despite extensive undercover video evidence gathered by Newsday during a three-year investigation that involved testers posing as prospective homebuyers. The probe found evidence that agents were steering buyers to certain neighborhoods based on race, and telling Black buyers — but not white ones — that they needed pre-approved mortgages.

Coldwell Banker’s Rosemarie Marando was asked at the hearing why she told a white tester to go to a convenience store at nighttime in a particular neighborhood.

Footage of the exchange shows her telling the man, “I can’t say anything, but I encourage you, I want you to go there at 10 o’clock at night with your wife to buy diapers.” She later added, “I have to say it without saying it, you know?” Further along in the conversation, she told him, “I don’t want to use the word steer, but I try to edu … I use the word … I educate in the areas.”

Marando said Thursday that she regretted using the word “steer,” but denied any wrongdoing.

“Buying a house is probably the biggest purchase that a buyer is going to make and I want them to make an informed decision,” she said. “I cannot say it, I do not steer, and perhaps they could use public resources to help them make that decision.”

In response, State Sen. Brian Kavanagh pressed Marando on the real meaning of her comments. “‘Saying it without saying it’ almost seems like a textbook definition of what we sometimes call ‘coded language,’” he said.

Associate broker Joy Tuxson of RE/MAX Beyond testified about footage that showed her telling a white tester, “I’m not going to send you anything in Wyandanch unless you don’t want to start your car to buy your crack, unless you just want to walk up the street.”

She told senators that she had worked as an agent since the 1970s and “never used ethnic backgrounds or race to steer any of my clients away from towns or areas.”

Sen. James Skoufis said Tuxson’s mention of crack was “an abhorrent statement, and quite frankly I think most people would agree, a violation of fair housing laws.”

The senators also heard testimony from Douglas Elliman’s Long Island CEO, Ann Conroy, who appeared with a masked lawyer sitting on a couch behind her. Conroy claimed many of the agents’ comments had been taken out of context and did not amount to discrimination.

Appearing frustrated by Conroy’s responses, Sen. Todd Kaminsky told her he thought Douglas Elliman “has a real chance to step up, acknowledge a problem and fix it — and instead you’re making a lot of excuses.”

Conroy rejected that, saying the company has changed its training following the report to ensure agents did not discuss schools. However, she said none of those involved had been disciplined.

“We did not see any violation of fair housing laws, so what would we discipline them for?” she said, noting that the company had scrutinized the footage and hired outside lawyers to weigh in.

It became clear by the end of the lengthy hearing that none of the agents featured in the Newsday report had been disciplined, though several brokerages claimed to have strengthened their training about fair housing laws.

The lack of discipline prompted criticism from lawmakers and housing advocates, including Elaine Gross of Long Island civil rights organization Erase Racism.

“That there has been no action is appalling,” she said.

State Sen. Ann Kaplan introduced legislation Friday that would make two hours of implicit-bias training mandatory for all real estate sales people. Agents are already required to undergo pre-licensing training and continuing education, which includes an overview of fair housing laws.

“I was shocked by how many witnesses testified sincerely that they had no discriminatory intent in their conduct, yet they engaged in blatantly discriminatory conduct that perpetuates division and does harm to our communities,” Sen. Kaplan said in a statement. “I believe these individuals lack an understanding of their own implicit biases, and it underscores the need for better education and training for all realtors and brokers.”

A large number of police departments across the country now require officers to undergo such training, but there is little research about whether such training actually changes behavior.

Four agents did not respond to subpoenas from the Senate. They are expected to appear at a separate hearing on Sept. 25.