Lawmakers call for stiff penalties, reform after housing discrimination probe

Report comes after investigation found rampant discrimination on Long Island

New York Senators James Skoufis, Kevin Thomas, and Brian Kavanagh. (Facebook via Skoufis, Thomas, and Kavanagh respectfully)
New York Senators James Skoufis, Kevin Thomas, and Brian Kavanagh. (Facebook via Skoufis, Thomas, and Kavanagh respectfully)


The New York State Senate issued sweeping recommendations on Wednesday to address housing discrimination, including increased fines for real estate agents and brokers who violate fair housing laws, and tougher enforcement of those regulations.

In a 97-page report, lawmakers outlined measures they said were necessary to create a “comprehensive, proactive” strategy to combat the “vicious cycle” of racial bias in housing. A key theme was enforcement of fair housing laws.

“New York State laws and regulations allow for too much self-monitoring of anti-discriminatory behavior as the major enforcement mechanism to ensure equal and fair housing opportunities,” the report said.

The report is the culmination of a months-long probe by Senate lawmakers, after a three-year Newsday investigation found widespread housing discrimination on Long Island. Among Newsday’s findings: Real estate agents sometimes steered minorities to certain neighborhoods and required them — but not white buyers — to obtain mortgage pre-approvals before showing them listings.

In its key findings, the report said Newsday’s 2019 exposé was “disturbing” but not surprising. “The goals of fair housing laws are far from realized,” it said. “Housing discrimination is still rampant.”

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The report recommended the state’s Attorney General perform undercover testing to ensure agents are complying with fair housing laws. Other recommendations include increasing licensing training requirements for agents and brokers; raising penalties for Fair Housing violations from $1,000 to $2,000; and encouraging industry reforms, such as opening new brokerages in communities of color and more diversity in hiring.

“One thing was obvious from the hearings: There was a fundamental misunderstanding, by agents and brokers, about what housing discrimination is,” State Sen. Kevin Thomas, who is chairman of the consumer protection committee, told Newsday this week.

To improve enforcement of new and existing laws, the report acknowledged a need to increase funding to support fair housing efforts. (The Fair Housing Justice Center, a civil rights nonprofit, has a $20,000 contract with the city of New York to conduct testing. A comparable organization in Los Angeles has a $900,000 contract with the city and county.)

To close the funding gap, the report recommends increasing the surcharges paid by agents and brokers — currently $55 and $155, respectively — to renew their licenses. If the fees were increased by $10 and $30, respectively, it would generate $1 million a year.

In the wake of the Newsday investigation, New York City’s top residential firms sharply condemned widespread race discrimination, although Douglas Elliman — which was called out in the story — called the investigation flawed.

To compel testimony in the legislature’s probe, lawmakers took the unusual step of subpoenaing brokerage executives. At a hearing in September, many agents insisted they had not discriminated against homebuyers or violated fair housing laws.