Long Island

It felt like the 'back of the bus'

A black Newsday tester's reaction after he learned how he had been treated by real estate agents.

Kelvin Tune

The mounting test results revealed this to Kelvin Tune: A black man who ventures into house hunting on Long Island risks suffering hidden discrimination by real estate agents.

He saw that the risks can be high.

“Do I feel like I’m sitting on the back of the bus? Yes,” Tune said after discovering evidence that six agents had subjected him to disparate treatment when compared with matched white house hunters.

An African American who came of age working summers in a Virginia tobacco field, Tune, 54, served as a tester in Newsday’s investigation of possible discriminatory practices in Long Island’s residential real estate brokering industry.

Over the course of nine months ending in July 2017, Tune met with nine agents in offices that stretched from Franklin Square on the west to East Setauket on the east, from Great Neck on the North Shore to Massapequa on the South Shore.

He adopted the identities of a tax consultant or financial adviser whose wife was employed in jobs that included child psychologist, nurse and financial portfolio manager. Often, Tune used his real name. Other times, he went by the aliases Andre Henry or Kelvin Liggon.

He expressed interest in houses ranging from $400,000 in one test to $5 million in another. Four times he posed as a would-be commuter hoping to ride the Long Island Rail Road no more than 45 minutes or an hour. In other instances, he told agents he wanted to live within a half hour of Bethpage, Brentwood or Port Jefferson to be near a workplace or his elderly mother.

Overwhelmingly, Tune felt that the agents had provided proper service until, in joint interviews with white house-hunting partners, Tune learned that seven of his nine tests had produced evidence of disparate treatment:

  • an agent had urged his white counterpart to consider listings in Plainview but had told him nothing was available;
  • an agent had warned his partner about gang violence in Brentwood but had given him 27 house listings there;
  • an agent had escorted his counterpart on house tours but refused to take him without an exclusive broker’s agreement;
  • an agent had directed his white counterpart to houses in overwhelmingly white communities after disparaging predominantly minority areas;
  • an agent had broken a commitment to show him houses while showing homes to his white partner;
  • an agent had told his white counterpart that she avoided the word “steer” but also advised, “I have to say it without saying it, you know?” She said nothing similar to him.
  • an agent warned his white counterpart against living close to Queens communities with immigrant populations, citing a “safety factor,” without providing similar information to Tune.

All told, five of Tune’s agents directed his white counterparts to neighborhoods with higher proportions of white residents. The gap averaged 21 percentage points, with the smallest differential 7 percentage points and the highest 55 percentage points.

“Is it discrimination? Yes,” Tune said. “But it is the way of the world.”

Five of the seven agents declined comment.

A lawyer for Douglas Elliman agent Judi Ross wrote that, in telling Tune’s counterpart that she never looks for houses in the predominantly minority communities of Freeport, Baldwin and Amityville, she “never referenced the racial makeup of the district or alluded to race” and “was merely speaking to her understanding of the school’s rating, which has nothing to do with race.”

The same lawyer, representing Douglas Elliman agent Donna Rogers, wrote that, in telling Tune nothing was available in his price range in Plainview, Rogers may have misinterpreted his “willingness to do a renovation” and was influenced by his mentions of traffic.

Tune learned early about life for black Americans.

He spent summers in Virginia with his grandmother, stringing tobacco on the farm where she worked. Starting from age 11, he’d hop onto a pickup truck for the drive to fields where foremen treated black and white workers differently. The black workers then went home to houses, like that of his grandmother, lacking basics like a tub and a toilet.

The labor taught Tune to appreciate the life he led in Albany, New York, where his Virginia-born parents had migrated and where he was born and raised.

Yes, he lived in segregated neighborhoods and attended segregated schools.

Yes, he held an after-school job in a diaper laundry where the black workers did the dirtiest work of counting soiled diapers as they arrived.

But anger and hatred had no place in his household. Speaking of his parents and grandparents, Tune said they shared little about life in the Jim Crow era.

“They tried to make me respect the person,” he remembered, adding that “growing up they tried not to make me an ugly person. They tried to make me into a respectful person. And I get that.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising how hard Tune works to get “the big picture,” to try to peer into the motivations of the real estate agents who, evidence suggests, may have discriminated against him in two-thirds of the tests in which he participated.

Perhaps they assumed he could better afford a house somewhere else.

Perhaps they were just looking to protect their business in the whiter neighborhoods by keeping him out.

Perhaps they assumed he would prefer to live among, as he said, his own nationality, that it was just a fact that people prefer to live among their own kind.

Tune lives in Rocky Point, a largely white community where he had the opportunity to buy an affordable condo near his workplace. He uses the condo as a place to lay his head, he said, and doesn’t socialize there or even feel comfortable enough, as a black man, to attend the community’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

So maybe that’s what real estate agents are thinking too, he suggests.

“We all are human beings, they all have hearts,” he said. “But also, bottom line, they need to make a dollar.”

Eventually, as the results mounted, Tune concluded that perhaps the agents weren’t giving him “the big picture” that he had attempted to discover about them.

“I’m asking them for guidance, and they never gave me the options, they never gave me the big picture,” he said. “Don’t give me 60 degrees of the circle, give me 360 degrees of the circle.”

What he most resented was the loss of opportunity to decide where he would want to live. “They should not be making that choice for you,” he said.

Tune said he accepts that racial discrimination might change in form but never disappear.

“Not hurt, not at all,” he said, adding: “You just got to take it. You can’t let it get to you.”