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Bill aims to end housing discrimination in real estate business

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If Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs it, legislation that would hold real estate professionals accountable for discriminatory housing practices, authored by State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, will become law. The bill would allow the Department of State to revoke real estate brokers’ and salespersons’ licenses if they are found to be discriminating against customers based on race.

The Senate approved the bill on July 22, 59-1. The only dissenting vote came from Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island. State Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, a Democrat from Wheatley Heights, sponsored the bill in the Assembly, where it passed unanimously on July 24. It will now be sent to Cuomo for his signage.

Gaughran said he wrote the bill last November, after he learned that there was no such law on the books. In New York, he said, there is no provision to sanction real estate brokers if they steer customers to buy homes in certain areas based on their race. Though the practice is not widespread, he said, he was nonetheless amazed that unethical brokers were not being held accountable.

“I really believe that in the United States of America in the year 2020, you should be able to live in any neighborhood you want to live in,” Gaughran said.

Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, a Long Island nonprofit that promotes equity in housing and education, called the legislation a game changer. Housing discrimination based on race, Gross said, has been a problem on Long Island for decades, and she was “ecstatic” that it might finally come to an end.

“I’m very encouraged,” she said. “I’m pleased to hear that some of the things that we’ve been saying for some time are really catching on … this is the only thing that’s going to impact in any substantial ways the behavior of the real estate agent, if they see when people get caught that something serious happens — they lose their license.”

There needs to be one housing market on Long Island, Gross said, with agents showing their customers houses anywhere they want to live. Right now, she said, some agents still take people of color to some areas, and white people to others.

Glen Head resident Steve Warshaw, an associate broker with Realty Connect and the president of the Gold Coast Business Association, said he thought the bill was great, and added that he was surprised to hear that there is currently no punishment for discrimination. An overwhelming majority of agents, Warshaw said, do the right thing, so a new law would be a problem only for those who do not deserve to be agents in the first place.

“There are some people there who skirt the gray area, who shouldn’t be in this business,” he said. “It’s in every business, but here it should not be tolerated. There are a few agents that do bad things that shouldn’t be agents, and this bill is geared for them.”

The issue dates back to the end of World War II, when suburbs grew quickly on Long Island and some real estate agents actively avoided selling homes to non-white people. Given the current national focus on race relations, the timing of the new legislation is perfect, and it’s a step in the right direction toward righting the wrongs of the real estate industry’s dealings with people of color.

Agents must take fair-housing classes every year, he said, and the theme in an important aspect of their education. He and most other agents, he said, have always focused on giving customers enough information for them to make their own decisions, which is what fair housing is all about.

“Being licensed is mostly about understanding the law and your fiduciary responsibilities to your clients and customers,” Warshaw said. “I hope [the bill] wakes people up to a better understanding of fair housing, which agents will sometimes take for granted.”