Readers Write: Discouraging real estate discrimination on Long Island

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It was disturbing, but perhaps not as surprising as it should have been, to see the reports in Newsday and, subsequently, the New York Times revealing that Jim Crow is alive and well among Long Island real estate agents. 

I suppose it could be considered a sign of progress that only 49 percent of African Americans experienced bias when seeking to purchase a home (not all that long ago, that percentage might have been closer to 100 percent), it must be recognized as intolerable that there is any residue of institutional bigotry in our communities, especially given that we are living in a state that prides itself on at least trying, in both law and custom, to abide by the principles of tolerance and equality in the nation’s fundamental documents.

As was asserted in the related New York Times editorial, “… there’s plenty that can be done about it.” 

It goes on to list a number of measures, all of which have some degree of merit; I find none of them objectionable. But allow me to suggest a somewhat different approach, albeit one that also incorporates penalties for violation of an established code.

First, though, let me set a framework by means of a comparison with a substantially different issue. 

I’m sure a large percentage of this newspaper’s readers has seen cases of patients (and perhaps even known one or more personally) who have been awarded substantial sums by the court system –  in some instances, even in the millions of dollars – as compensation for gross negligence in their care: a surgeon operated on the wrong leg or left a sponge or other tool in the patient’s abdomen, or a diagnosis by a physician or clinic was so seriously in error that it led to permanent disability or worse. 

It’s my contention that the value to society of those awards lies not in the compensation received by the victim and/or the heirs but in the awareness of the potential cost – financial and reputational – to the medical practitioner(s) of the carelessness that led to the error. That, as much as or possibly even more than, the cost of the insurance premiums serves as a motivation to be more careful in avoiding such errors in the first place.

I suggest a similar approach to the real estate business.  Among the Times’ suggestions are continued and enhanced pair testing, and that anyone experiencing discrimination in housing should promptly inform the office of Attorney General James.  Perhaps those two approaches could be combined in legislation that:

  • defines carefully and comprehensively (i.e., leaves no loopholes) what constitutes bias and defines serious penalties for violating that law;
  • includes heavy financial penalties for both the sales agent who committed the violation and the employer who failed to provide effective training to its agents;
  • adds a provision forbidding the employer from mitigating any part of the fine levied on the individual agent;
  • establishes an organization – one that has absolutely no ties to the real estate businesses such as mortgage bankers, lenders, title searchers, etc., as well as brokerage firms – to conduct on a regular, fairly frequent basis the kind of paired testing  that revealed the nature and extent of the problem on Long Island; and
  • makes clear that any brokerage firm, and any individual agent found to have violated the anti-bias law will be identified publicly identified in readily accessible media, whether in local newspapers and/or a website in the relevant government agency or office.

While the Times cites the cost of paired testing as a likely hindrance to passage of a law providing it, there might be less or no resistance if the law also stated that any and all penalties paid for violations would be paid to the organization managing the program, thus mitigating or possibly even eliminating the cost to New York taxpayers.

I believe that, if the brokerage firm and its agents are well aware that they are subject to random testing by assigned pairs, that they bear a substantial risk if they’re found to have discriminated by race, religion, etc., and that their reputation will be tarnished by the publicity that attends to their actions, they are likely to take much more seriously their obligations under the law and custom and bend a much greater effort to avoid violations.

Regrettably, it must be conceded that ethnic or religious prejudice cannot be eliminated by law from people’s hearts and minds. 

It ought to be possible, though, for governments to pass, and enforce, regulations that rest firmly on clear principles and serve to prevent – or at least to minimize – the owners, managers, and employees of business establishments from imposing their personal prejudices on members of the general public.

Robert I. Adler   

Port Washington

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