A three-year Newsday investigation into how real estate agents on Long Island serve homebuyers of different races found that in 40 percent of undercover tests, the evidence suggested that minorities were subject to discrimination.
Published this month, Newsday’s report, “Long Island Divided,” is largely based on the results of a series of instances in which a white tester and a minority tester went to the same real estate agent with similar requests and parameters, such as the general area where they are looking to buy a home and how much they would like to spend. The method, called “paired testing,” is also what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to track compliance with the Fair Housing Act.
If an agent shows one client mostly, or exclusively, houses in neighborhoods with populations that are predominantly white, and shows another client houses in neighborhoods with a greater percentage of minority residents, that may be evidence of racial steering — a practice that is illegal.
Of the 86 paired tests that Newsday conducted throughout Long Island, six targeted the Hamptons real estate market. Of those six, Newsday found that five did not reveal evidence of discrimination — but a sixth tested agent gave a black tester and a white tester listings in different neighborhoods and was recorded saying that Hispanics had “taken over” Springs and Northwest Woods.
“Gone are the days when a real estate agent will tell a minority — a black person in particular — ‘You can’t buy a home in this particular area,’” said Olivia Winslow, a Newsday reporter and one of the lead writers of “Long Island Divided.” “That doesn’t happen anymore. But it’s a very subtle kind of thing.”
Discrimination could take the form of an agent subjecting a minority homebuyer to greater financial scrutiny than a white client, such as having to obtain mortgage pre-approval before being sent any home listings, Ms. Winslow explained. And Newsday found that kind of extra scrutiny occurred in seven cases in the larger region, or 8 percent of the tests.
“Most people who are the victims don’t know they have been victimized,” Ms. Winslow said. “In our report, our tests, they were dealing with professional real estate agents who were pleasant and professional.”
But, for example, in one instance elsewhere on Long Island, a white tester was not asked to present ID, while a black tester was, Ms. Winslow said. “It was only when they were able to compare notes with the white counterpart that they found out that there were differences in how they were treated.”
In the case of the testers in the Hamptons, they were instructed to tell agents that they lived in New York City and did not know much about the area, but would like to buy their first home there. Paired testers requested the same price range for their home searches and presented agents with similar credit scores, income and money in the bank.
In Test 59, the one test in the Hamptons that Newsday reported as showing evidence of discrimination, the testers were a black woman and a white woman who visited the same agent within two months of each other in 2016. That agent was Kevin Geddie, who at the time worked for Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Bridgehampton; since the beginning of 2018, he works for Compass.
As seen and heard in a recording by a hidden video camera, Mr. Geddie told the white tester, “The Hispanic community came in, and they really took over Springs and Northwest Woods area.”
Newsday mapped the 28 listings that he provided to the black tester and the 12 listings that he provided to the white tester. More than half of the listings sent to the black tester were located in Northwest Harbor and Springs, while he did not send the white tester any listings in those communities.
“Despite asking for the same parameters, they received disparate listings,” Ms. Winslow said.
Mr. Geddie did not respond to a request for comment from The Press. However, he emailed Newsday to say his comment was taken out of context, and wrote, “I apologize for the remark and look forward to continually improving in order to serve all of my clients with respect. … [The statement] does not represent who I am as a person, and does not reflect my professional commitment to treat everyone, clients, family and friends, equally and with respect.”
An attorney for Douglas Elliman told Newsday, “Had Douglas Elliman been informed of such remarks at the time they were made, Douglas Elliman would have taken immediate and appropriate corrective disciplinary action.”
A Compass spokesperson told The Press in a statement: “Compass’s mission to help everyone find their place in the world can only be achieved if everyone is treated equally. We enforce a strict code of ethics and require [Fair Housing Act] compliance by our agents at all times.”
Fred Freiberg, the executive director of Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit that combats housing discrimination in New York, analyzed the test for Newsday.
“While the agent provided home listings to the white tester close to her stated price range, some of the home listings provided to the African-American tester were below her stated price range,” Mr. Freiberg said. “The agent’s conduct indicates differential treatment and steering.”
Real estate agents are licensed by the state and must go through three hours of fair housing or anti-discrimination training, but in five of six classes that reporters attended, instructors gave inaccurate, confusing or incomplete information, according to Newsday.
Ms. Winslow said only one of the six classes spent a full three hours on fair housing.
Since the results of Newsday’s investigation were published on November 17, State Attorney General Letitia James announced that she has directed her Civil Rights Bureau to launch a probe, the State Senate Democratic majority announced that hearings will take place on Long Island next month, and Governor Andrew Cuomo said the State Division of Human Rights, Division of Homes and Community Renewal and Department of State will launch a joint investigation.
Additionally, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced that the county would conduct ongoing investigations, hire an additional Suffolk County Human Rights Commission investigator, and convene real estate industry stakeholders to work toward better compliance with state and federal guidelines, and to offer better public education.
Two members of the U.S. Congress from Long Island, Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice, sent a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calling on the department to investigate bias.
Ms. Winslow said fair housing experts are calling for more enforcement and more paired testing.
There are a few avenues for people who feel that have been the victims of discrimination, but Ms. Winslow said the process is cumbersome. For one, a homebuyer may file a complaint with the State Division of Human Rights, which will conduct an investigation and pass the results to New York’s Department of State, which will evaluate whether disciplinary action is warranted, she explained.
Homebuyers may also complain to their county human rights commission, but these commissions have very small staffs, she said.
“Long Island Divided” can be viewed at newsday.com/divided.