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New York State Senate Passes Legislation Targeting Housing Discrimination

Michael Conroy

The New York State Senate passed an 11-bill package on Feb. 8 that targets bias in housing and real estate in reaction to investigations into systemic racial discrimination on Long Island.

If signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the bills would require real estate agents to undergo additional anti-bias training for new and renewed licenses, increase fines for cases of discrimination and increase undercover investigations of real estate activities by the Attorney General. They would also compel the state’s Division of Human Rights to provide compensation to damages experienced by victims of housing discrimination.

This modern-day housing discrimination was brought to the attention of the Legislature after a three-year undercover Newsday investigation in 2019 that found Long Island real estate agents directed homebuyers to different areas based on their race and ethnicity, a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the state’s Human Rights Law. Nearly 25% of white homebuyers were steered to majority white neighborhoods, while people of color were directed to more integrated neighborhoods, the investigation found.

The state Senate has held two public hearings and joint investigative sessions. The hearings resulted in a report on Jan. 27 that corroborated Newsday’s findings and made recommendations reflected in the bills.

“I am proud to sponsor new legislation that will provide much-needed oversight and accountability measures for real estate brokers, as well as increased penalties for violations of fair housing and human rights laws,” said Senator Kevin Thomas, the co-author of the joint report and chair of the consumer protection committee, in a statement. “With this package of legislation, we are sending the message loud and clear: Discrimination has no place in our communities.”

Housing discrimination on Long Island against people of color goes back to the era of segregation. In Levittown, homes were originally created in 1947 only for whites before the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 said that race-based covenants could not be enforced.

The laws would also increase fines for cases of discimination by real estate agents. That money would be used to fund an anti-discrimination in housing fund. The law would also require agents to submit their demographic data to the state.

“I commend the committee chairs for their diligent work and leadership on this issue of fundamental fairness, and I look forward to taking more action to ensure every New York resident has a fair shot at achieving the American Dream of home ownership," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.

A majority of the bills were passed with bipartisan support. They will now undergo legislative action in the State Assembly where, if they pass, they will be sent to the governor.