Brokers and owners in New York City will be tested by “secret shoppers” as part of a new housing plan aimed at rooting out discriminatory practices and housing inequality.
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a draft version of the plan Tuesday. It outlined various strategies to address fair-housing issues in New York City.
Among them will be a Fair Housing Litigation Unit to conduct secret testing and bring cases against owners and brokers who discriminate based on race, disability or income.
The city spends less than $100,000 on complaint-based testing, according to Jackie Bray, the director of the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants. The new project will have an annual budget of $2 million, with $750,000 dedicated to testing.
Its team of lawyers, researchers and testers will take a “proactive approach” to weeding out discrimination, Bray said, by scraping data, scrutinizing portfolios and sending out fake shoppers.
Testing will not be random. For example, an owner with many low-rent units but with no tenants using rent vouchers would be more likely to be targeted to see if would-be tenants bearing vouchers are being rejected for that reason.
Angelo Rodriguez, managing director of Brooklyn-based brokerage NY Casa Group, welcomed the announcement, which he said built on earlier efforts to hold industry professionals accountable through testing.
“I think this is a more aggressive approach and definitely needed,” he said. “I’ve turned down in my career at least a dozen landlords who’ve asked me to discriminate.”
Individuals found to be discriminatory will face civil lawsuits requiring them to pay fines and agree to end their discriminatory practices, Bray said. Because real estate brokers get their licences from the state, the city’s unit would not have the power to revoke them, but it would prepare evidence to present to the state and make recommendations about individual brokers.
The draft plan was the product of two years of research and consultation, the mayor’s office said. Its publication comes nearly two months after an explosive undercover investigation by Newsday revealed widespread discrimination in Long Island’s housing market — against African-Americans in particular.
Nassau and Suffolk counties were quick to act: Both announced housing discrimination plans within days of the Newsday report, which found black shoppers were steered away from white neighborhoods nearly half the time, among other illegal practices.
The mayor’s plan lists a series of additional goals and strategies for fighting housing discrimination and inequality. They include expediting the creation of affordable housing and improving the city’s public housing stock, which includes 170,000 NYCHA units.
The city will also increase resources to protect tenants and homeowners from harassment, eviction and scams, and work to educate brokers and owners about the consequences of discrimination.
“I think there’s a long way to go to have an even playing field,” said Aldo Fleurantin, a broker at Bond, who believed owners would likely try to find loopholes. He pointed out that co-op boards, for example, are not required to disclose why they turn down applicants.
A separate study will measure housing discrimination and track the efficacy of the unit’s work. Bray acknowledged that measuring levels of discrimination is difficult, and said a methodology for this study has yet to be determined.
Last year, The Real Deal contacted 26 brokerages to get their reactions to the Newsday report. Many condemned the discrimination as “appalling,” “alarming” and “tragic.”
“It saddens me that in 2019 we live in a world where this is still an issue,” Richard Grossman, president of Halstead Real Estate, told TRD in November. He noted that he had been denied a rental apartment in the past because of his sexual orientation.
Reached for comment about the latest plan, Grossman said he welcomed it. “To the extent that it’s going to be enforcing people’s rights and starting more dialogue on this matter, I think that’s great,” he said.
A public hearing in the City Planning Commission Hearing Room is scheduled for February 6.
Write to Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at [email protected]