An investigation reveals widespread housing discrimination against blacks and other minorities in New York’s suburbs, more than 50 years after the Fai
Property Flat Villa real estate An investigation reveals widespread housing discrimination against blacks and other minorities in New York’s suburbs, more than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act. By The Editorial BoardThe editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.Nov. 21, 2019An aerial view of Merrick, Long Island, where eight out of 10 residents are white.Credit…Johnny Milano/BloombergWhite Americans have long found comfort believing that racial discrimination is a thing of the past.Black Americans feel they know better, and a three-year investigation of Long Island real estate agents by the local newspaper Newsday provides the latest depressing evidence that they are right. More than half a century after the great civil rights battles to end discrimination, the newspaper found that black home buyers are being steered to black neighborhoods and more closely scrutinized by brokers.Newsday sent white investigators posing as buyers to meet with 93 real estate agents about 5,763 listings across Long Island. Then, they sent a second buyer — either black, Hispanic or Asian — to meet with the same agents. The practice is a gold-standard methodology known as “paired testing,” in which real estate agents are contacted by pairs of prospective clients with similar financial profiles.Black testers were treated differently than white ones 49 percent of the time. Hispanic buyers encountered unequal treatment 39 percent of the time and Asian buyers 19 percent of the time.Along with steering minority testers to majority-minority areas, and white testers to mostly white areas, some agents required black buyers to meet additional financial conditions that they didn’t demand of white buyers with the same profile.Sometimes, in exchanges recorded by undercover cameras, agents would deter white buyers from house hunting in minority areas.“Follow the school bus, see the moms that are hanging out on the corners,” Rosemarie Marando, a Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent, told one buyer.In another case, Le-Ann Vicquery, then a Keller Williams Realty agent, extolled the virtues of the Long Island hamlet of Brentwood to a black buyer. But to a white buyer interested in Brentwood, Ms. Vicquery sent this text message: “You may want to look into recent gang killings in the Brentwood area online.”The agents gave white buyers an average of 50 percent more listings than black buyers. Some declined to do business in areas with large minority populations.The discrimination found by Newsday flagrantly violates the Fair Housing Act, approved as part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, handicap or family status.The Fair Housing Act offered watershed relief to black, Jewish, and other Americans who had long been blocked — by the force of federal, state and local laws, as well as racial terrorism — from living in or buying homes in majority-white or non-Jewish neighborhoods.New York’s suburbs were no exception. Levittown, the Long Island suburb of tidy homes whose name became synonymous with middle-class success in postwar America, was all-white, even as the development was only made possible because of federally backed loans.Those loans were administered by the Federal Housing Administration, which maintained color-coded maps of neighborhoods across the United States. Under a process known as “redlining,” the federal agency marked off areas where black people lived, then refused to insure mortgages in those areas.Under the same federal rules, black Americans weren’t able to buy homes in new developments like Levittown, even under the much-celebrated G.I. Bill that helped so many white Americans enter the middle class. It is no longer 1949; explicit racism in real estate is no longer legal. But the Newsday investigation makes clear that the changes in the rules are greater than the changes in reality. Real estate agents will shake the hands of black buyers, and show them around, but those buyers are still being treated as second-class citizens because of the color of their skin.In a country where homeownership has long been the way to build wealth, discrimination in housing is uniquely harmful. It is the chief reason behind the deep segregation in New York’s public schools, which is among the worst in the country. It also helps explain the startling racial gap in wealth in the United States. The median wealth of white Americans is $134,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The median wealth of black Americans is $11,030.Americans would find it unfathomable if schools or water fountains were labeled “White Only,” as was commonplace across the South just several decades ago. They would be kidding themselves to think this kind of discrimination in housing, without the labels, is any less pernicious. But there’s plenty that can be done about it.The New York State attorney general, Letitia James, said on Tuesday that her office’s Civil Rights bureau would investigate housing discrimination on Long Island. Officials said anyone with information about possible violations of the Fair Housing Act can call (212) 416-8250, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former head of the federal housing department, said in February 2016 that New York would launch a “fair housing enforcement program,” using paired testing and beginning in Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City’s northern suburbs. But Newsday found that the state has not conducted any additional paired testing after that initial round of 88 tests. The Newsday investigation makes clear that the state needs to get up off the couch.The paired testing Newsday relied upon is expensive, but necessary. The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts a national test every decade, which reliably finds evidence of discrimination. The most recent results were published in 2012.Taxpayers need not foot the bill. By licensing real estate agents, New York is conferring a valuable privilege. That license also comes with obligations and, evidently, a need for more supervision. The conclusion is straightforward: New York should impose a fee on real estate agents to fund a vigorous program of paired testing, and agents who are found to be discriminating against clients should face severe penalties.Yet the persistence of discrimination suggests the need for still stronger correctives.In Australia and the United Kingdom, home buyers rarely hire their own real estate agents. Instead, the agent selling a home handles the whole process. This is significantly cheaper for buyers and sellers, and it limits the opportunity for discrimination, since buyers decide which houses to visit on their own.The key difference is that when buyers in those countries choose to hire agents, they pay them directly, whereas in the United States, the trade associations that control real estate listings require sellers to agree to pay the buyer’s agent as a condition of listing a home.Consumer advocates have long attacked this “buyer broker rule” as a key reason agents still are able to command such high fees. That is reason enough for New York to end the practice. But reducing the reliance of buyers on real estate agents — or at least shifting the relationship so the agent is paid by the buyer — could also make a meaningful difference in reducing the practices uncovered by Newsday.More than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act, black Americans and other minorities are still waiting for the protection of full citizenship under the law, and in everyday life.Their fellow Americans may be shocked. But they can no longer say that they didn’t know.