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Op-Ed

More state action is needed for fair housing

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New York state’s Division of Licensing Services has adopted new regulations to address widespread housing discrimination. They take effect on June 20, and represent an important step forward. Yet much more state action is needed.

The regulations come in response to irrefutable evidence of housing discrimination on Long Island. That was the focus of a joint hearing held on Long Island in December by three State Senate committees, at which I testified on behalf of ERASE Racism. But the problem isn’t limited to Long Island. It is statewide and systemic. That’s why more state action is needed.

The Senate committees’ hearing was sparked by Newsday’s three-year investigation of real estate sales practices on Long Island. It exposed widespread evidence of civil rights violations, employing a research technique — involving paired testers (one white, the other “of color”) and the expertise of the Fair Housing Justice Center — that mirrored an earlier investigation by ERASE Racism that demonstrated racial discrimination in real estate rental practices.

The problem, however, is not limited to sales or rental markets, or even to real estate. Stark patterns of residential racial segregation are evident across New York and the United States. They are the result of intentional, coordinated actions of federal, state and local governments, the housing and banking industries, and other institutions over many decades. Those patterns have been sustained by those institutions, which all need to work aggressively to end them.

The new Division of Licensing Services regulations require real estate brokers and their employees and agents to notify — and obtain signed disclosure forms from — prospective buyers, sellers, renters and landlords about anti-discrimination laws. They also require the prominent display of information about how customers can file complaints about the services provided with the licensing agency.

The new regulations thereby send two clear messages to real estate agents. First, the state has underscored that they must abide by fair housing statutes, and that their license to practice is contingent on compliance. Second, the state has clarified that the Division of Licensing Services plays a vital role in fair housing enforcement.

This step should, however, be just the first of many by the state. At the joint hearing in December, ERASE Racism and the Fair Housing Justice Center proposed a five-point plan for New York, with the following core points:

• Fully utilize the licensing power of the state to better regulate real estate licensees. The new regulations respond to that recommendation. The Division of Licensing Services should also determine whether licensees have engaged in conduct that warrants disciplinary action, including possible suspension or revocation of licenses.

• Create a well-resourced, proactive, and better-coordinated fair housing enforcement strategy. Complaints of discrimination must be investigated in a timely and thorough manner, but significant resources must also be devoted to conducting proactive testing investigations, since victims of discrimination usually don’t know what properties they were not shown.

• The real estate industry should take affirmative steps to ensure compliance with fair housing laws. The Long Island Board of Realtors has a special responsibility here, but industry-wide action is needed. That action should include the hiring of more diverse sales forces.

• Affirmatively further fair housing in all housing and community development activities at the local, state and federal levels. New York’s Human Rights Law should be amended in two ways: 1) to explicitly prohibit discriminatory action by local public agencies involved in housing, land use and zoning, or community development to ensure that their efforts are not perpetuating segregation by making housing unavailable based on race or national origin, and 2) to require state agencies and departments, local jurisdictions, public housing authorities and other public entities receiving state or federal funds for housing and community development to “affirmatively further fair housing” and take no action materially inconsistent with that.

• New York state should implement fair housing legislative initiatives, policy changes, and support for programs that expand access to housing opportunities in all neighborhoods. Among other actions, the state should enact an “equitable share” housing plan and establish a minimum affordable housing goal for every community.

All five of these steps need to be implemented for New York to achieve fair housing statewide.

Elaine Gross is president of Long Island-based ERASE Racism.