'We Have To Get This 100 Percent Right': Real Estate Industry Professionals, Local Lawmakers Discuss New Fair Housing Legislation - 27 East

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‘We Have To Get This 100 Percent Right’: Real Estate Industry Professionals, Local Lawmakers Discuss New Fair Housing Legislation

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Kevin Loiacono is the owner of BrookHampton Realty and serves as the president of the Long Island Board of Realtors.

Kevin Loiacono is the owner of BrookHampton Realty and serves as the president of the Long Island Board of Realtors.

A for sale sign in a Hampton Bays neighborhood.

A for sale sign in a Hampton Bays neighborhood.

A 2019 Newsday investigation on housing discrimination on Long Island revealed that the word

A 2019 Newsday investigation on housing discrimination on Long Island revealed that the word "exclusive" can have double meaning when it comes to the real estate market. New legislation passed in December by New York State Governor Kathy Hochul's office is intended to combat the issues unveiled by that investigation.

A for sale sign in front of a property in Hampton Bays.

A for sale sign in front of a property in Hampton Bays.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

A home for sale in Sag Harbor.

Tessa Hultz is the CEO of the Long Island Board of Realtors, and has been studying racial discrimination in housing for two decades.

Tessa Hultz is the CEO of the Long Island Board of Realtors, and has been studying racial discrimination in housing for two decades.

authorCailin Riley on Feb 8, 2022

In late 2019, when a team of investigative journalists at Newsday published the culmination of three years of work that looked into housing discrimination on Long Island, it revealed some ugly truths about how rampant illegal practices, like racial bias and steering — both overt and implicit — were in the area.

While much of the investigation, called “Long Island Divided,” focused on Nassau County and more western and central portions of Suffolk County, evidence pointed to at least one agent based in the Hamptons market employing discriminatory practices, and overall revealed that minority homebuyers were subject to discrimination in 40 percent of undercover tests.

In response, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul signed a nine-bill action plan at the end of December intended to combat housing discrimination — put forth not long after Newsday published the investigation, but stalled for a variety of reasons, including the resignation of former Governor Andrew Cuomo and other pandemic-related delays.

The legislation takes a multi-faceted approach to combating the issues revealed by “Long Island Divided,” including ramping up and improving training for real estate agents, better enforcement of existing laws barring discrimination, providing resources for homebuyers who feel they have been subjected to unfair treatment, and more.

“For too long, the dream of owning a home has been out of reach for too many New Yorkers because of discrimination and bigotry,” Hochul said in a press release announcing the new legislation in December. “When intrepid investigative journalists uncovered housing discrimination in New York, we took action to end this unacceptable practice. I’m proud to sign strong new laws expanding access to fair housing and allowing more New Yorkers to achieve the American dream of owning their homes.”

The centerpiece of the legislation is the Anti-Discrimination in Housing Fund, which will be used by the Office of the Attorney General for fair housing testing in a similar “paired testing” approach that Newsday journalists executed in their investigation. In it, two undercover testers — for example, one Black and one white — separately posed as potential buyers, presenting similar financial profiles and other credentials, and made identical requests for homes in the same area. With the only difference being their race, the agent’s actions were then reviewed to determine whether the buyers were treated the same.

And they weren’t.

Of the 86 tests conducted from the New York City line to the East End, Black testers experienced “disparate treatment” 49 percent of the time, according to the investigation, compared with 39 percent for Hispanic testers and 19 percent for Asian testers.

When Kevin Loiacono, president of the Long Island Board of Realtors, or LIBOR — a 30,000-member not-for-profit dedicated to promoting ethical industry standards and education — read the results of the investigation, he said he was far from shocked by what it unveiled.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “It is disheartening to see it laid out in one place like that. It’s not something you hear about every day, but over the years, we’ve all heard things. We really need to think about what we can do better here to make this less of an issue.”

The Anti-Discrimination in Housing Fund will be partially supported by fines collected for violations of anti-discrimination sections of the real property law. The new legislation raises the fine ceiling from $1,000 to $2,000, diverting 50 percent of the revenue to the fund, and adds a surcharge to licensing and re-licensing fees — $30 for real estate brokers and $10 for salespeople — to be used for statewide fair housing efforts, too.

Finally, the legislation aims to tackle the problem by enhancing training practices for agents. They are now required to include, but are not limited to, courses on the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment, historic lack of access to housing opportunities, anti-bias training, and more. The legislation also requires an additional two hours of training for real estate brokers and salespeople relating to implicit bias, as part of their license renewal process.

Loiacono, who has worked as a licensed real estate broker in Brookhaven, Southampton and East Hampton towns since 1986 — and owns BrookHampton Realty in Center Moriches — has been paying close attention to the development of the legislation, he said, describing it as fair and appropriate in terms of what it asks and expects of real estate professionals.

“We believe fair housing is essential and it’s a fundamental right,” he said, speaking in his capacity with LIBOR. “None of the laws being put forward are inappropriate.”

The organization’s website, lirealtor.com, has a link dedicated to fair housing, meant to serve as a hub of resources on the issue, Loiacono explained. He described the Newsday series as “well done,” and said it was an essential and important piece of investigative reporting.

“It was really thorough,” he said. “Fair housing is still an issue, and it’s often misunderstood. It’s an issue that still needs to be looked at, and it was good for starting a conversation about fair housing.”

Loiacono was so moved by the piece, he said, that he still has a copy of the print edition that included the extensive feature, on his desk at work. One turn of phrase from the article has stayed with him — and speaks to his philosophy and approach to the fair housing issue.

“There was a comment in the piece that Realtors are the ‘gatekeepers to fair housing,’ and in essence we are, but we should be ambassadors for fair housing,” he said. “That’s the view of the group of people I work with.

“We have to get this 100 percent right,” he added. “There’s really no room for us to get it mostly right.”

Combating discriminatory housing practices in the real estate industry remains a problem — one that requires such a targeted, proactive and multi-pronged legislative effort — because there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done when it comes to undoing the legacy of institutionalized racism that played such a heavy hand in housing for most of the 20th century, including redlining and the creation of overtly racists covenants.

This is Tessa Hultz’s particular area of expertise. As the chief executive officer of LIBOR, she leads the non-profit organization’s paid staff, handling operations and partnering with the board of directors to implement policy that they develop. But, prior to that, she researched and documented historical residential racial segregation for two decades, studying the legacy of barring Blacks and other minorities from living in certain neighborhoods.

Even though these practices date back to the early 1900s, they are still baked into many records today, Hultz explained.

“For some people, the Newsday investigation was a surprise,” she said. “For me, it was not.”

Hultz came to work for LIBOR at an interesting time, just nine months before the “Long Island Divided” series was published. Previously, she had worked in North Carolina, helping put together a first-of-its-kind study to determine whether the presence of affordable housing had a measurable impact on surrounding housing values.

Fair housing had been an important issue for LIBOR long before the Newsday investigation, Hultz said, and the laws inspired by it will only help further the effort. “The new legislation is attempting to get at the issue from multiple angles,” she said, “and a multi-pronged approach of increased education and enhanced fines for violations is the right approach.”

Making the training process for agents more robust is particularly key, she added, given that the investigation revealed plenty of flaws regarding education within the industry.

“The increased education requirements in particular are an opportunity for all licensees to have a better understanding of why fair housing laws exist and are so important,” she said.

Local lawmakers agreed that the legislation was a good step and shared their thoughts on how they feel it will affect their areas.

“As has been well documented in the Newsday series, housing discrimination against Blacks and other minorities on Long Island is not some distant memory from the history books of the 1950s,” New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said. “It has continued to this day. Bigotry still is a formidable roadblock to home ownership for too many of our fellow Long Islanders. Through increased training, education, penalties and enforcement, these laws will demonstrate to the real estate industry and the public that New York State will not tolerate housing discrimination.

“The tools are in place to ensure that the dream of home ownership will not be denied on the basis of race or skin color,” he said, adding, “It is imperative that the follow-up is there to ensure that these laws are aggressively enforced.”

Both Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said they support the legislation, while noting that when it comes to the East End, the general lack of affordable housing stands as the more widespread crisis.

“We understand that state and local agencies have to further fair housing,” Van Scoyoc said. “For me, personally, at this point, I’m not sure there’s much housing to discriminate about. There’s very little housing available to anyone who’s not wealthy at this point, frankly. That’s not to say that discrimination can’t still occur based on ethnicity or other grounds, and, of course, that’s something we’re all interested in preventing and curtailing, so I think [the legislation] is a good step. It’s disappointing that this kind of thing still occurs. We need to get beyond that.”

When Schneiderman was in the market for a home several years ago, he did recall one agent encouraging him to look for houses “further south” from the street where he ultimately bought and currently lives — a neighborhood that had been traditionally populated by minorities, though he said that has changed with time.

Schneiderman went for his real estate license at one point and said he remembered taking training related to fair housing and steering.

“They made it clear it was against the law,” he said. “But I’m sure they could do more training. I don’t know how big of an issue it is here in the Hamptons real estate market; the biggest issue is that it’s completely unaffordable, no matter your ethnicity. It’s a disaster.”

Van Scoyoc added that another issue involves potential homebuyers facing discrimination from banks when they’re trying to procure a mortgage — pointing out that, for many, simply needing a mortgage to buy a home can shut them out, with the explosion of cash offers over the years.

“That’s what I see as the big threat to maintaining our community out here,” he said.

Set against a backdrop of systemic racism and unaffordability, leveling the homebuying field into a fair, accessible and equitable process is an uphill battle, experts agree, but putting forth intentional, proactive and consistent effort to make it better is something real estate professionals, like Loiacono, believe needs to become the norm.

“It won’t happen as fast as we’d like, but change is definitely happening as a result of everything that came after that article,” he said. “And it’s good change.”

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