No house hunter asked specifically to live in three Long Island communities where white residents dominate the population – but seven real estate agents specifically suggested them almost exclusively to white potential buyers during Newsday’s investigation.
Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre in Nassau County emerged in the testing as places that these agents overwhelmingly chose for the white customers but not for their matching, paired minority home seekers. The makeup of the communities ranges from 75 percent white to 88 percent white.
The agents’ choices matched the demographics of the towns: The seven gave their white customers 13 times more listings in the communities than they provided to matching minority buyers. Two suggested homes there only to their white customers.
In all seven tests, Newsday’s two fair-housing consultants – Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, and Robert Schwemm, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law – independently detected evidence of steering.
Real estate agents engage in steering, which is outlawed under the Fair Housing Act, by encouraging members of racial or ethnic groups to consider particular neighborhoods and discouraging others based on race, ethnicity or religion.
While meeting with the seven agents, Newsday testers – one white, the other black, Hispanic or Asian – posed as first-time buyers who were considering a general location rather than a precise neighborhood.
For example, they asked for help finding $600,000 houses within an hour’s commute to Manhattan, $450,000 houses within 30 minutes of Garden City or $500,000 properties within a half-hour of Bethpage.
Following protocols used in paired testing by government-sponsored fair housing enforcement investigations, the testers were matched by qualities such as gender, age and education and presented comparable personal profiles and home-search criteria.
The territories covered by the requests gave the agents authority to recommend houses in communities whose demographics ranged widely. Those varied from 97 percent black and Hispanic Roosevelt to 23 percent Asian Hicksville to 88 percent white Merrick.
When white and minority buyers are matched and make comparable requests for help finding houses, agents should, in theory, give them roughly similar listings to consider in comparable places. Wide disparities could show evidence of racial or ethnic steering.
All things being equal, a map of the listings an agent suggested to paired testers would distribute the listings evenly across an area.
Agents did, in fact, recommend houses to white, black, Hispanic and Asian testers at similar levels in some communities.
Consider, for example, Bellmore, Wantagh, Seaford, Massapequa and Massapequa Park, five communities that stretch six miles along the South Shore. Their populations are 85 percent to 90 percent white. All told, 22 agents located 616 listings in those communities, distributing the listings between white and minority buyers in roughly similar numbers.
As one example, 12 agents suggested 114 Wantagh listings, giving 57 percent to white customers and 43 percent to matching minority buyers. As another, 14 agents suggested 273 Massapequa listings, giving 42 percent to white customers and 58 percent to matching minority buyers.
Coldwell Banker Residential agent Robert Stiles suggested comparable numbers of homes in the South Shore communities to white and minority testers when the testers, one white, the other Asian, sought his help finding $450,000 homes within a half-hour of Hempstead. Stiles did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Based in Bellmore, Stiles recommended two listings in Wantagh to each customer, while also pointing out three Bellmore listings to the white customer and two to the Asian house hunter.
In seven tests:Agents placed 94% of the listings for Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre with white house hunters
In contrast, seven agents provided listings that favored white over minority house hunters in Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre.
Separated by as few as five miles and as many as 12, Merrick, Rockville Centre and Levittown sit at the points of a triangle in the middle of Long Island’s South Shore.
The three have been solid places to invest in housing: Home values appreciated at least 3.4 percent per year since 1990, a rate faster than experienced in two-thirds of Long Island’s communities, according to a Newsday analysis of the Federal Housing Finance Agency price index.
Although similar in demographics, they have distinct characters and histories.
Rockville Centre offers a close-in commute to New York City on the Long Island Rail Road’s Babylon branch and is home to the imposing edifice of St. Agnes Cathedral, the seat of Long Island’s Roman Catholic diocese. Single-family houses, ranging from Capes to rambling Tudors, line leafy streets. The school district touts that 91 percent of the 2018 high school graduates earned a Regents diploma with advanced designation.
Almost one in five of the district’s students is black or Hispanic. While the minority children are dispersed throughout the schools, white and minority families live largely in separate areas. Most black residents are clustered in attached housing in a corner of the village close to the train tracks, a legacy of bitterly fought, so-called urban renewal that bulldozed a historic black settlement a half century ago.
Merrick is a prosperous community that boasts highly rated schools, access to the South Shore bayfront and a drive of less than 10 minutes to Jones Beach. Its median household income is almost $140,000 – roughly one-third higher than the Nassau County median. A significant Jewish population supports four synagogues, and there is a thriving Catholic parish.
While Merrick is largely homogenous, with a population that is 88 percent white, its western boundary, the Meadowbrook Parkway, sits like a barrier to two overwhelmingly minority communities, Roosevelt and Freeport.
To the northeast, the concrete slabs on which William Levitt built 17,000 tract houses on farmland in the late 1940s that became Levittown formed a crucial foundation for the construction of suburban Long Island.
His legacy today is a place in which many homes have been expanded, families stay through generations and the community takes pride in the strength of its schools, the bustle of its library and recreation facilities that include eight pools.
Levitt’s legacy also includes Levittown’s identity as an overwhelmingly white community due to covenants barring blacks that Levitt wrote into his initial deeds. While diversity has increased, with growing Hispanic and Asian representations, Levittown’s share of African Americans still hovers at roughly 1 percent.
In the seven tests cited as showing evidence of steering into and away from Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre, agents recommended 156 listings in the three communities – placing 93 percent of the listings with white house hunters.
An additional 13 agents also selected listings in Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre. Although these agents directed 71 percent of these listings to white buyers, Newsday’s consultants said differences in the placement of listings given to white and minority testers were not large enough to show patterns of steering.
Cumulatively, the 20 agents provided 82 percent of their Merrick, Levittown and Rockville Centre listings to white home buyers – a figure roughly in line with the white makeup of the three towns.
Two paired tests conducted over a three-month period in 2017 illustrate the imbalances that came into play in Levittown and Merrick as agents recommended homes for white and Hispanic buyers in both communities.
Hispanic testerSent to some majority white areas but not Merrick, Levittown
White testerSent to mostly white areas including Merrick, Levittown
In one of the tests, white and Hispanic buyers asked Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent Maria Vermeulen for help finding $475,000 houses within 30 minutes of Hempstead.
Vermeulen, who was based in Massapequa Park, recommended 28 homes in Levittown and seven homes in Merrick to the white buyer. She offered no homes in either community to the Hispanic buyer.
Instead, she pointed the Hispanic buyer east to Wantagh, Seaford and Massapequa, which are among the predominantly white communities where agents provided roughly equal listings to white and minority testers. She also suggested homes there to the white buyer.
Based on information provided by Newsday, fair housing consultant Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, concluded:
“The selection of home listings by the agent raises concern about possible steering. Although the agent selected many home listings for both testers in predominantly white areas, only the white tester received listings in the predominantly white areas of Levittown and Merrick.”
Consultant Robert Schwemm found that the 7-0 gap in the listings that Vermeulen provided in Merrick to the white and Hispanic testers “is large enough to make out a case of pro-white steering to Merrick.” Similarly, he judged that the 28-0 difference in Levittown “is large enough to make out a case of pro-white steering to Levittown.”
There, he added: “The conduct seems to violate the Fair Housing Act vis-a-vis Levittown, potentially producing claims by both the minority testers and the town.”
Newsday sent Vermeulen a letter detailing the findings of the tests, invited her by letter and email to view video recordings of her interactions with testers and requested an interview. She did not respond to the letter and email or to a later telephone message seeking comment.
Newsday presented its findings by letter to Charlie Young, president and chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. The letter covered the actions of Vermeulen and additional Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agents.
The company’s national director of public relations, Roni Boyles, wrote in an emailed statement:
“Incidents reported by Newsday that are alleged to have occurred more than two years ago are completely contrary to our long term commitment and dedication to supporting and maintaining all aspects of fair and equitable housing.
“Upholding the Fair Housing Act remains one of our highest priorities, and we expect the same level of commitment of the more than 750 independent real estate salespersons who chose to affiliate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage on Long Island. We take this matter seriously and have addressed the alleged incidents with the salespersons.”
Coldwell Banker declined to discuss the company’s responses to specific cases.
Hispanic testerOffered no listings in mostly white Levittown
White testerReceived 22 listings in mostly white Levittown
In the second test that entailed Merrick and Levittown listings, white and Hispanic house hunters relied on Century 21 agent Gina Minutoli for assistance in seeking $500,000 homes within an hour of Manhattan.
The agent, based in East Meadow, gave the white buyer 22 choices in Levittown and 19 in Merrick while providing the Hispanic customers with no Levittown possibilities, plus three Merrick listings to consider.
Instead, Minutoli directed the Hispanic buyer to Bellmore, Wantagh, East Meadow and Westbury, while also providing the white buyer with choices in those areas.
Freiberg concluded that the selection of listings in both Levittown and Merrick “raises concerns about possible steering.”
Schwemm saw “pro-white steering” to Merrick and Levittown in both tests and said more generally, “These tests taken together show a clear pattern of pro-white steering to Merrick.”
Newsday detailed the findings to Minutoli by letter, invited her by letter and email to view video recordings of her interactions with testers and requested an interview. She, along with a fellow agent and branch manager reviewed Newsday’s video recording and listings maps, but none of them commented at the time.
More than a month later when Newsday reached out to her for a comment, Minutoli said: “I had gotten an email from someone. It’s extremely unfounded. It’s so untrue. I was told by everyone not to comment. It’s sad, that’s all I’m going to say. It’s so not me.”
Similar imbalances in listings offered in Levittown in one test (18 for a white buyer, three for a black buyer) and in two tests in Merrick (six for a white buyer, two for a black buyer; and 15 for a white buyer, two for a Hispanic buyer) prompted Freiberg and Schwemm to detect possible evidence of pro-white steering.
A single agent, who showed no evidence of providing disparate treatment or steering, accounted for two-thirds of the listings provided to minority house hunters in Levittown. Ethiel Melicio of Century 21 Catapano Homes gave 60 Levittown listings to his white customer, while also providing a substantial number – 23 – to his black client in searches for $500,000 homes within a half-hour of Bethpage.
Newsday presented its findings by letter to Michael Miedler, president and chief executive officer of Century 21 Real Estate LLC. The letter covered the actions of Minutoli, Melicio and additional Century 21 agents. Miedler and Melicio did not respond to requests for comment.
Collectively, six agents recommended homes to buyers in Rockville Centre. Two of the tests showed evidence of steering, the consultants said.
Black testerOffered no listings in Garden City, Rockville Centre
White testerSent to mostly white Garden City, Rockville Centre
In one of those tests, black and white house hunters asked Coach Realtors agent Mary Weille to recommend homes priced at up to $600,000 in neighborhoods within an hour commute of Manhattan.
Weille stressed to both buyers that their budgets would not stretch far in her home base of Garden City because most homes were more expensive than $600,000. She suggested five house listings in sections of Rockville Centre that averaged 83 percent white to the white buyer.
Weille did not mention Rockville Centre to the black customer and offered no home possibilities there.
According to Zillow, more than two dozen Rockville Centre houses were listed as available within the price range on the date when the black customer met with Weille.
Black testerOffered one listing in Rockville Centre, none in Merrick
White testerOffered 18 listings in Rockville Centre, 14 in Merrick
In the second test cited as showing evidence of steering in Rockville Centre, Coach Realtors agent Jayne McGratty Armstrong responded to white and black buyers seeking $600,000 houses within an hour of Manhattan. She offered 18 houses there to the white buyer and only one to the black customer. At the same time, she provided the white buyer with 14 choices in Merrick and none to the black customer.
Both McGratty and Weille work for Coach Realtors. Newsday detailed the test findings by letter, invited them by letter and email to view video recordings of their interactions with testers and requested interviews. Neither responded.
Three leaders of Coach Realtors – Georgianna Finn, the firm’s founder, Lawrence Finn, a company owner, and Whitney LaCosta, principal and broker of record – viewed Newsday’s video recordings and listings maps. They declined to comment.
– With Rachelle Blidner, Bart Jones, Deborah S. Morris and Carol PolskyWatch videos of the tests
Sources: Demographic data in maps from Census Bureau 2016 American Community Survey five-year estimates.