Long Island

Part 4

They looked almost everywhere else

Agents avoided listings in many of Long Island's minority communities.

Real estate agents associated with Long Island’s biggest brokerages had more than 200 opportunities to suggest houses to paired testers in eight overwhelmingly black and Hispanic communities during Newsday’s fair housing investigation.

The agents largely avoided the minority communities, recommending homes there only 15 times. But when they did offer listings in minority communities, they sent those listings more often to minority buyers than to whites.

Freeport, Elmont, Hempstead, Brentwood, Central Islip, Uniondale, Roosevelt and Wyandanch fell 211 times within the home search areas presented by testers to agents – for example, 30 minutes from Hempstead at a top price of $450,000 or 20 minutes from Brentwood at a $475,000 maximum.

The eight predominantly minority communities ranged from 73 percent minority Freeport to 97 percent minority Roosevelt. Although houses were on the market with prices that ranged from $400,000 to $500,000, the agents directed all but a small share of testers to communities with larger proportions of white residents.

“I think what you’ve described is steering based on racial composition of a neighborhood. The fact that everybody is steered away doesn’t make it acceptable,” said Greg Squires, a professor of public policy at George Washington University in Washington who has served as a consultant to fair housing groups and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“You could argue that this does not show discrimination against the home seekers because everybody was steered away from these neighborhoods,” Squires added. “If in fact that’s the case, what it suggests is discrimination against certain neighborhoods because of the racial composition of those neighborhoods.”

Newsday tested agents who worked with the 12 companies that dominate the market: Douglas Elliman Real Estate, Century 21 Real Estate LLC, Charles Rutenberg Realty Inc., Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage on Long Island, Coach Realtors, Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty, Laffey Fine Homes, Keller Williams Realty, The Corcoran Group, Signature Premier Properties, Realty Connect USA and RE/MAX LLC.

Altogether, they have 218 branch offices in Nassau and Suffolk counties but no offices in the eight communities where most of the Island’s racial minorities live. The average white population in the towns where the top real estate brands have their offices ranges from 75 percent (Century 21) to 86 percent white (Keller Williams).

Asked by letter why they have no presences in the Island’s predominantly minority communities, representatives of only three of the 12 companies responded: Daniel Gale Sotheby’s, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage on Long Island and RE/MAX LLC.

Katherine Heaviside, a spokeswoman for Daniel Gale Sotheby’s, said the firm had “grown over the years to over 28 locations. While we are not in every community, we look forward to expanding into many more locations in the years to come.”

Spokeswomen for Coldwell Banker and RE/MAX noted that with the technology available today, customers can connect with agents’ services without having to go to a physical office.

The RE/MAX representative, Kerry McGovern, said the company operated a franchise in Freeport from 2000 to 2010 and in Hempstead from 2005 to 2017.

McGovern also said: “We do not share actual figures of this nature but can confirm RE/MAX agents have had many listings and have closed transactions in each and every one of these neighborhoods in the past year.”

Coldwell Banker spokeswoman Roni Boyles said the firm’s “market share has steadily increased year over year from 2016 through 2018 collectively, in the communities you named: Elmont, Freeport, Hempstead, Roosevelt and Uniondale.”

The 12 biggest firms on average have had a smaller market share in the eight minority communities than they do across the Island. They’ve controlled more than half the listings Islandwide. But in the minority communities, the biggest firms’ market share has ranged from about a fifth in Wyandanch to a third in Freeport and Elmont.

Agents associated with smaller, locally based brokerages service most of the listings in the eight minority communities. Roy Clark, an agent with LI Community Realty Inc. in Brentwood, said large brokerages overlook areas like Brentwood, Central Islip and Wyandanch.

“They don’t really make advances here,” said Clark, who has worked in the area for nearly 15 years.

When agents from the larger firms have contacted him about showing a house hunter one of his listings, Clark added, “I have not experienced any white buyers at all being brought by any large company.”

Clark said when he used to work at one of Long Island’s largest brokerages, “they didn’t really venture too much into areas that were areas of color. I don’t know if it was a fear factor or what. I don’t know why they didn’t.”

Lenora W. Long, a broker based in Hempstead for 18 years, said she has noticed trends like those experienced by Clark: white agents working for the Island’s biggest firms contacting her about her listings in Hempstead on behalf of a black or Hispanic client.

“I’ve never had the experience of an agent from the North Shore or South Shore bringing a Caucasian looking for a home in Hempstead,” Long said. “It’s usually black or Hispanics shuttled into Hempstead.”

Jim Blais, who is white and a resident of Hempstead Village’s Ingraham Estates development, said he has witnessed the phenomenon described by Long.

“There are roughly five houses in the last two or three years that have gone for sale or have been sold and what I’ve noticed is that you see only black or Hispanics coming to look at the houses,” Blais said. “I have yet to see a white family coming by.”

Newsday’s home search criteria included geographic areas and maximum home prices. The maximums started at $400,000 and ranged into the millions.

To determine how often agents could have selected houses in the predominantly minority towns, Newsday confirmed that the towns were in requested areas and determined through Zillow, the online house search service, that the market included houses at designated prices on the dates when testers met with agents.

The analysis excluded tests that sought homes costing more than $500,000, because home prices in the eight minority communities typically fell between $400,000 and $500,000.

All told, 37 of Newsday’s 86 test zones covered at least one of the eight minority towns. Many of the tests covered several closely located communities – for example, Freeport bordering Roosevelt and Uniondale just a short drive from Hempstead – giving agents the opportunity to recommend houses in multiple towns in a single test.

The average number of listings they recommended in other Long Island communities was more than double the average in the eight predominantly minority towns.

In the few instances when agents suggested homes in the predominantly minority neighborhoods, they gave minority buyers nearly four times as many listings as they gave white buyers (115 to minority buyers and 32 to white buyers).

Agents recommendedRoosevelt, Uniondale, Hempstead and Brentwood only 10 times.

But suggested Bethpage, Commack, East Northport and Hauppauge
80 times

The imbalance in how often agents from the 12 largest firms recommended homes in predominantly minority areas compared with their focus on predominantly white areas becomes evident in their approach to individual communities.

Agents suggested Bethpage, Commack, East Northport and Hauppauge to buyers a total of 80 times, averaging 135 listings each time. The communities range from 83 percent to 90 percent white.

In contrast, agents recommended Roosevelt, Uniondale, Hempstead and Brentwood a total of 10 times, averaging 26 listings each time. The communities range from 1 percent to 21 percent white.

Antoine Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a group of black agents, and an agent in Buffalo, said, “Racial biases and the profit motive together exacerbate steering in the real estate industry.”

In one case, black tester Ryan Sett and white tester Steven Makropoulos asked Coach Realtors agent Adelheid O’Brien for help finding $400,000 houses within 30 minutes of Bay Shore, where she was based. She avoided neighboring Brentwood for both men.

“You don’t want to have Brentwood school districts,” O’Brien told Makropoulos.

The Brentwood student body was 96 percent minority, with a predominance of Hispanic children. She did not counsel black tester Sett to avoid Brentwood.

Additionally, Newsday’s two fair housing consultants saw evidence suggesting broader steering. In total, O’Brien provided the white tester double the number of listings she gave the black tester, 14 to 7. She placed the white tester’s listings in tracts that averaged 84 percent white, compared with 70 percent white for the black tester.

“Based on the agent’s comments to the testers about school districts and the location of listings the agent provided to the testers, it appears the agent was steering the white tester to areas with a larger white population [general and student] but not the African American tester,” wrote Newsday consultant Freiberg.

O’Brien did not respond to requests for comment. Coach Realtors owners Lawrence Finn, Georgianna Finn and Whitney LaCosta viewed recordings of the tests and declined to comment.

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Channeling home buyers toward some towns and away from others can have economic consequences, as the practices reduce demand in some places to the detriment of homeowners and drive it up in others to the benefit of both homeowners and of agents who can reap larger commissions on sales.

“Their financial well-being is directly tied to the value of the homes in the area in which they specialize,” Jacob Faber, an assistant professor of public service at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said of real estate agents. “So, this kind of creates this powerful financial incentive for real estate agents to participate in this reproduction of segregation.”

Faber co-authored a 2017 study with Max Besbris titled, “Investigating the Relationship Between Real Estate Agents, Segregation, and House Prices: Steering and Upselling in New York State.”

The study noted “when real estate agents are incentivized to concentrate in already non-Hispanic white, wealthy areas and upsell buyers within those areas, they likely play a role in the production of prices and segregation in those areas.”

Clark, the Brentwood agent, says also that limiting the supply of buyers in a community has “a negative impact on homeowners looking to sell a property in the overlooked communities.”

“The more people that come to view your property, the more chance of having a bidding war,” he said. “And the more of a chance of you getting your asking price.

“But, as a result of steering, you do have a problem. The one that would probably really be able to bid a really good price on your house is not going to be there because you’re being steered in a different direction. So, yeah, it does. It really affects the sellers. It has a great effect on the sellers.”

The annual growth rate for home values in the predominantly black and Hispanic towns was lower than for Nassau and Suffolk counties as a whole, as well as for nearby individual predominantly white communities, according to a Newsday analysis using the Federal Housing Finance Agency price index.

On average, homes in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods had an annual appreciation rate of 3.05 percent between 1990 and 2017. The Islandwide average was 3.35 percent per year: For Nassau it was 3.53 percent and for Suffolk 3.15 percent, excluding the Hamptons.

Over time, seemingly small deviations can produce substantial differences in the accumulation of wealth.

As one example, consider how two homebuyers would have fared if they had purchased homes for the median sales price of $165,000 in the Town of Hempstead in 1990 – one buying in overwhelmingly white Merrick, the other in neighboring, largely minority Freeport.

With houses in Freeport appreciating at an average rate of 2.87 percent from 1990 to 2017, the homeowner there would have wound up with a property valued at $354,222. Merrick enjoyed a higher average appreciation rate, 3.44 percent, over the same period, pushing the value of the house there to $411,220 – resulting in a greater wealth gain of $56,000 over a Freeport home during the period.

Remarks by one agent reflected how agents avoided pointing customers toward largely minority communities.

Twenty-three days apart in April 2017, Richard Helling and Kelvin Tune consulted agent Judi Ross in the Keller Williams office in Massapequa Park. Each sought a house within commuting distance of Manhattan with a $500,000 top price.

Ross offered to send each man house listings and advised both to research school district report cards for information about educational opportunities.

In her view, she told both customers, the law barred her from providing information about schools.

“Legally I’m not allowed to say that’s a good district or a bad district, you know, because I could get in a lot of trouble,” she told Helling, adding while speaking with Tune: “I can get fined if I start directing you to specific districts.”

On a house tour with Helling, however, Ross repeated that she felt constrained not to discuss school quality but then named largely minority towns that she avoided.

“So, do the school report card and then you can decide which, you know, like I said, legally I get in big trouble if I . . .,” she said, adding:

“There’s a few districts that I know, I’d like, not, like, I won’t look in those towns. You know like Freeport and Baldwin and Amityville, which is part of Massapequa schools but it’s just certain parts of Massapequa…. so, I wouldn’t go near them.”

The black and Hispanic student proportions of Baldwin, Freeport and Amityville range from 76 percent in Baldwin, to 89 percent in Freeport, to 91 percent in Amityville, a community located a little more than a mile from Ross’s office.

Ross’s treatment of the two testers prompted two fair housing consultants for Newsday to conclude that the agent’s comments, coupled with listings that sent the white and black testers to different areas, suggested evidence of different treatment and steering.

Ross declined to be interviewed. She now works for Douglas Elliman Real Estate. An attorney with Kasowitz Benson Torres, a law firm representing Douglas Elliman, said Newsday’s characterization of Ross’ comment about not looking in the communities of Freeport, Baldwin and Amityville “is wrong and taken out of context.”

The lawyer, Jessica T. Rosenberg, said Ross “never referenced the racial makeup of the district or alluded to race. Ms. Ross was merely speaking to her understanding of the school’s rating, which has nothing to do with race, and to the geographical fact that those districts are further ‘east’ and thus even further from Manhattan. She ‘wouldn’t go near them’ for purposes of the tester’s desire to be within 45 minutes from Manhattan.”

Watch videos of the tests

In fact, Freeport and Baldwin are to the west of the listings Ross provided to both testers, and thus a closer commute to Manhattan.

Freeport Schools Superintendent Kishore Kuncham, upon learning of Newsday’s test results that included agents disparaging the Freeport school district, said: “If such a thing has been happening, I would say it’s absolutely unfortunate.” He continued, “I have been told many times that real estate agents are supposed to present information, facts, to the buyer, by law or by ethics that they are not supposed to make any such comments or make preferences over one district or the other.”

Freeport school officials have for years invited real estate agents to a luncheon to inform them about what is happening in its schools, Kuncham said. “We invite the real estate agencies in Freeport, Baldwin, neighboring districts to truly talk about our schools,” Kuncham said in a recent interview. He said district officials talk about “all the amazing things that are happening in Freeport.”

Kuncham touted more than 30 college credit-bearing courses in collaboration with Farmingdale State College, “and our students can walk away with one to one-and-a-half years” of college credits that can lessen their college tuition bill once they enroll. He said Freeport High School students have at least 27 Advanced Placement courses and other “world class opportunities.”

Freeport Village Mayor Robert Kennedy said he didn’t necessarily agree with Newsday’s findings that agents avoided selecting listings in Freeport to prospective homebuyers, “because many of the real estate agents I know do recommend Freeport, and Freeport houses do move quicker than probably any other neighborhood. I’m married to a real estate agent in the village of Freeport and her business is doing very well in Freeport.”

Hazel Gibbons has glowing praise for the Freeport neighborhood she has called home for nearly 25 years.

“I chose to live in Stearns Park because it’s beautiful,” Gibbons said. “It has canopies of trees. The homes are stately. People take care of their property.”

She also liked that it was an “integrated community, but with no [white] flight.” Gibbons is black.

The fact that Stearns Park, so many years later, remains integrated was satisfying to Gibbons, who is retired after a 30-year career in hospital administration.

“Perhaps it’s more people recognizing that it doesn’t matter, the color of your skin,” she said. “It’s who you are. And in that community, there are many people who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals. They’re in all walks of life, talking to each other.”

Reaction from some Hempstead village officials ranged from disappointment, to complaints about media portrayals they say emphasize only the negative side of their community, to, perhaps, a certain degree of weariness.

Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan, for example, said in a recent interview that crime in the village is declining.

“So, I think that negative perception does seem to persist even when it’s largely unfounded,” Ryan said.

Village statistics provided to Newsday show decreases in most violent crimes: homicides (down 33 percent from 2017 to 2018, going from six to four); rape (20 percent decline, going from five to four); and assault (a preliminary figure is given showing a 7 percent drop, from 176 in 2017 to 164 in 2018). There was, however, an 11 percent increase in robberies during the period (rising from 96 in 2017 to 107 in 2018).

While homicides dropped between 2017 and 2018, according to statistics the village provided this year, the number of homicides was up to six in early August, with county officials and other law enforcement outside the village pointing to warring factions among several gangs. That led to an agreement for increased patrols in the village utilizing New York State Police and Nassau County police.

First District Court, where criminal arraignments are held, is in Hempstead and could be a factor in the perception that Hempstead is plagued by crime, said Village Attorney Cherice Vanderhall.

“Someone’s being arraigned, you see a name, you see Hempstead, New York, without regards to the fact the person may live in Bellmore, the crime may have happened in Massapequa, or Seaford, or what you have you,” Vanderhall said. “You still see Hempstead, New York.”

Told a majority of agents did not recommend housing options in predominantly minority communities in Newsday’s paired testing investigation, Hempstead Deputy Mayor Charles Renfro responded with a hollow chuckle. “I’m laughing to keep from crying because I think it’s very unjust, some of the things that happened in the minority neighborhoods,” he said, growing serious.

“We get everything here,” Renfro said, ticking off homeless shelters and drug treatment facilities, for example. “And I think it’s unfair to judge us, particularly if you don’t know us or talk to us about the situation you think might be a problem here.

“Now grant you, our school district is not where it should be, and I don’t think you would find anyone saying that it is. But I do believe we are making progress.”

In the end, Renfro and Gibbons had a similar message. It boiled down to, as Renfro said, “Come and talk to us. Come and visit.”

“Talk to me,” Gibbons said. “You might find out that we have more in common than you might want to think.”


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