Real estate agents on Long Island and across the nation have helped tens of millions of people buy and sell houses. They’ve helped shape communities and let buyers achieve the American dream of homeownership, often bolstering their financial well-being.
They also have engaged in practices that worsened segregation and denied African Americans equal access to the benefits of homeownership.
The industry’s record of discrimination parallels prevailing racial attitudes of the last century. It began in sync with overtly racist government policies from the early 20th century through the 1960s, evolved through the strife of the civil rights era and often continues today through practices both subtle and insidious.
Racial bias in the real estate industry “has shifted from explicit and public to kind of implicit and hidden,” said Jacob Faber, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University who studies segregation.
Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1866, granting all citizens the right to “purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property,” among other rights.
The Amityville school district excludes black children from a new school. During a school board meeting, black parents threaten a boycott. The district admits black children.
Roslyn closes its all-black school in response to parents’ pressure.
The Ku Klux Klan burns crosses in a dozen villages across Long Island.
The National Association of Real Estate Boards, the predecessor of the National Association of Realtors, adopts a code of ethics stating, “A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”
The Ku Klux Klan rallies at the Mineola Fair Grounds, and more than 30 Long Island real estate companies purchase ads in the event’s fundraising journal. Advertisers include the prominent L’Ecluse, Washburn & Company real estate brokerage in Manhasset, as well as firms in East Moriches, Roosevelt, Lynbrook, Riverhead, Bay Shore, Bellmore, Seaford, East Islip, Elmont, Sayville, Baldwin, Freeport, Northport and Hempstead. It was one of several KKK events attended by thousands of people on Long Island, including a march through Freeport (above) and a 1929 cross burning in Wantagh.
The National Association of Real Estate Boards advocates racially restrictive covenants on deeds to prevent homes from being occupied by African Americans who were not servants of the “rightful owner or occupant.”
The Federal Housing Administration’s underwriting manual states that deed restrictions should prohibit occupancy of homes “except by the race for which they are intended,” and that “incompatible racial elements” would cause housing values to fall.
Levitt and Sons Inc. begins constructing homes in Levittown. Even though African Americans worked on the construction of the Levittown development, restrictive covenants state the homes could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race,” except for servants. Photo credit: Newsday
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that race-restrictive covenants cannot be enforced.
Levitt and Sons drops its race-restrictive clauses on Levittown homes, but master builder William Levitt says he will continue to accept only white families: “It is the same policy that all builders in this area have adopted and the elimination of the clause has changed absolutely nothing.”
African Americans gradually start moving into previously all-white communities. On Long Island, a practice called blockbusting explodes. Real estate agents go door to door, warning homeowners that black homebuyers are coming and saying property values will plummet. The scare tactics help agents earn commissions on rapid sales. Some agents buy houses at low prices from panicked white homeowners and sell them at a premium to minority buyers, pocketing the difference.
Over two decades, the practice speeds the transition of communities such as Lakeview, Hempstead, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Freeport from largely white to largely minority – and helps reinforce Long Island’s entrenched segregation.
William and Cynthia Cotter, an African American couple who had evaded Levittown’s racially restrictive policies by subletting a home, face eviction when the lease expires. The first time marshals try to remove them, 60 protesters stand in the way. Later, marshals evict them. Eventually, the Cotters buy a different Levittown home directly from its owner. Photo credit: Newsday/Bill Sullivan
Suffolk Real Estate Board President Louis Modica tells Newsday that certain “disreputable” agents were engaging in blockbusting. Modica says the board will investigate complaints and seek to “stamp out this vicious practice that turns prejudice into profit.” The practice had been reported in Brentwood and Amityville. In Freeport, a council is formed to prevent blockbusting.
In Lakeview, a racially mixed group of residents complain to the state attorney general that agents from 10 real estate brokerages were going door-to-door with messages about the community’s changing demographics.
One broker, identified in a Newsday article as a black man, sent letters advising white homeowners that they need not fear being the first to sell to an African American family. He wrote, “please hesitate no longer. There are such families living in your section presently.” Local residents launch a “Freedom Dwellers” campaign to try to halt panic selling. Photo credit: Newsday/Dick Kraus
New York Secretary of State Caroline K. Simon issues the nation’s first regulation prohibiting blockbusting.
Hempstead has four nearly all-black or nearly all-white schools. The state orders the district to end the racial imbalances. Whites flee the community.
The anti-blockbusting regulation empowers the state to revoke the license of a Suffolk County agent who had gone door to door in North Bellport, urging residents to sell quickly since their homes would soon be “valueless” because of the arrival of “colored people.” The agent handled the sales of more than 50 homes in the area and owned 55 more as a landlord, historian Neil P. Buffett said.
After 275 Hempstead homeowners complain to the state about daily phone calls, mailings and door-to-door visits by agents, the secretary of state promises to order brokers to stop soliciting them.
The state education commissioner orders an end to segregated schools in Malverne. The U.S. Supreme Court later upholds the order.
New York Secretary of State John P. Lomenzo revokes the license of a Huntington Station real estate broker for blockbusting. The broker implied to a Greenlawn homeowner that her home value would decline because African Americans were moving next door. He offered to buy her house for about $7,000 less than its $17,000 listing price. He and two associates also were found to have used the names of other people to buy and sell properties, illegally hiding their own roles in the transactions.
A federal judge rules that maintaining a 99 percent black school in Manhasset violated the 14th Amendment.
New York Secretary of State John P. Lomenzo says he hopes to create an investigative unit to crack down on racial discrimination. He says the probe would require adding about 15 investigators to the 20 already assigned to the metropolitan area, and it would cost $100,000 to $150,000 – or $800,000 to $1.2 million in today’s dollars.
Six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Levitt and Sons announces that it will adopt a policy of “open housing” as a memorial to King. Earlier in the year, Levitt had sold his company to the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. but remained as president, and this is his last order of business before he leaves. It is viewed as a stunning admission of his past racist policies.
One day later the Fair Housing Act is signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The most blatant forms of racial discrimination begin to give way to less visible practices, such as steering black house hunters toward minority or integrated areas and whites to houses in overwhelmingly white areas.
Nine real estate brokers and agents lose their licenses on racial discrimination charges as a result of Lomenzo’s bias investigation. Among them are two Port Washington real estate professionals who had refused to rent an apartment to an African American woman. The agency says it has scheduled 13 hearings on bias charges against other real estate agents and brokers, and it expects more to follow.
The state legislature outlaws blockbusting. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller calls for a crackdown, telling his attorney general to recover profits made by real estate agents who engage in the practice.
The New York secretary of state launches an investigation into complaints that real estate brokers are blockbusting and submitting fraudulent mortgage loan applications in Nassau County. The agency sends 10 investigators to the county.
The same year, Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Newsday reporter, columnist and editor who is pictured above, is steered by a real estate agent to a house in Huntington Station following military service in Vietnam. Payne, who was African American, wrote later: “With a down payment of $10,000 from my years in the Army, my wife and I shopped at the mercy of a squad of real estate agents who all showed us the same dozen houses.”
“There were stops in Wyandanch, Central Islip, North Amityville, Greenlawn and Huntington Station, all predominantly black neighborhoods,” Payne wrote.
One agent, based in overwhelmingly white East Northport, kept coded lists of houses designated for African American buyers, separate from more extensive rosters for white buyers, Payne wrote. Confronted, the agent “nervously explained that it would be very difficult for us to buy a house in a white neighborhood on Long Island,” Payne recalled. Photo credit: Defense Visual Information District
In a case that drew national attention, one of the first African American families to buy property in Massapequa Park discovers the home they are building has been defaced with racist graffiti and damaged with a sledgehammer. Three neighbors tell Newsday they do not object to the family moving in and they did not see the vandalism take place. “You run across that any place,” one man says. “You get it in the finest of neighborhoods.” Other neighbors organize a patrol to protect the home from further vandalism. Photo credit: Newsday/ Naomi Lasdon
New York’s secretary of state restricts real estate solicitation in certain areas of Nassau County, Brooklyn and Queens. State officials say they have received 15,000 blockbusting complaints from Long Island homeowners, including more than 1,000 from Freeport.
The U.S. Justice Department rules racial steering illegal under the Fair Housing Act. The New York secretary of state launches an investigation into alleged blockbusting in Uniondale.
Wheatley Heights residents file a federal lawsuit against three real estate brokerages, 10 agents and the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island, charging the brokerages showed blacks properties only in Wheatley Heights and did not show Wheatley Heights homes to white clients.
New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo revokes the licenses of a large West Babylon real estate firm and six of its employees who were found guilty of steering white families away from Wheatley Heights. The same year, Cuomo imposes fines and temporary suspensions on agents at five brokerages in Rockville Centre, Baldwin and Merrick after a year-long bias investigation aided by 40 Freeport volunteers found that agents were steering African American buyers to Freeport while making negative comments about the village to white buyers.
The state education commissioner orders school desegregation in Rockville Centre.
Freeport’s federally funded effort to stem white flight – a program called Homefinders Service, which brokers home sales without the usual brokerage fee – handles 41 sales in 18 months, village officials tell Newsday. “We’re really fighting the forces that want to make Freeport all black,” one official says. But brokers and minority leaders say all 41 homes were sold to whites, and one critic tells Newsday, “They want to stabilize Freeport, all right. They want to stabilize it white.”
A cross is burned on the lawn of a black family that moved into a house on a previously all-white Valley Stream street. The homeowner, Inga Grant, says she believes her neighbors “are not racist” and says, “Let us not forget that we are all God’s children and human beings.”
A neighbor, who is quoted by name, tells Newsday: “The black people should stay in the black neighborhoods and then these things wouldn’t happen … I don’t hate blacks, but I don’t want them in the neighborhood.”
In a Newsday article, Long Island Board of Realtor’s executive vice president David Taylor calls racial steering a “serious problem.” “The attitude of the community is: Don’t bring in any blacks,” he says. “I would say that some brokers have to respond to that pressure, even brokers who are aware that it is against the law.”
State Attorney General Robert Abrams sues a Franklin Square real estate company for steering black home buyers to Elmont, Hempstead and West Hempstead while showing whites homes in Franklin Square, Floral Park and North Valley Stream. The brokerage ends up settling the suit for $50,000.
The case started when a black New York City police officer reported that a broker refused to allow an engineering inspection of a house for sale in Franklin Square and demanded the couple pay the full purchase price immediately. Abrams sent in a white couple as testers, and the broker served them without the same obstacles.
Two men who pleaded guilty to burning a cross on Inga Grant’s lawn in Valley Stream are sentenced to probation. The head of the Nassau County Interracial Task Force calls the sentence “a travesty” and calls for harsher punishments. Newsday reports there had been 75 incidences of cross burnings and racial vandalism in Nassau since the Valley Stream cross burning, resulting in 30 arrests.
The state orders real estate agents to stop contacting 1,400 Uniondale homeowners who complained to the state about blockbusting and steering. Uniondale was then 70 percent white and now is 21 percent white, 37 percent black and 35 percent Latino, according to 2017 census figures.
Elmont residents crammed a public hearing on banning real estate solicitation in Elmont, Valley Stream and South Floral Park. “Our area was once integrated,” one resident, Jean Bradley, said. “But now it’s been segregated. These brokers create artificial social engineering that should stop.” Later that year, the state files an order blocking agents from contacting homeowners in those communities.
After an 18-month investigation by state, county and local agencies uncovers a pattern of racial discrimination, four Nassau real estate agencies reach settlements with the state attorney general. The agencies – in Westbury, Floral Park, East Meadow and Baldwin – pay $54,000 total to settle the charges.
The investigation found that the agencies took white testers to white areas and black testers to more heavily minority neighborhoods. In some cases, agents readily showed whites houses in their price ranges, while telling blacks who made identical requests no homes were available.
The New York Court of Appeals strikes down a state order banning real estate solicitation in certain areas, saying it is too broad. In response, the New York secretary of state issues new orders banning certain kinds of solicitation in certain areas of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Nassau County.
Port Washington resident Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley sues two real estate brokerages, charging they tried to steer her to Elmont. She eventually wins damages and a consent order.
More than one out of five African Americans on Long Island say in a Newsday survey that they have experienced discrimination in buying a home, and three-quarters said real estate agents steered black homebuyers to black areas.
Three shotgun blasts shatter the front doors and windows of a South Hempstead brokerage whose owner, Antonio Patino, had received phone calls warning, “If you keep bringing blacks into the neighborhood, we will blow up your store.” Photo credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams
A federal appeals court rules in favor of the real estate industry, finding that the state’s orders banning real estate solicitation in certain areas restrict agents’ free speech rights.
In an effort to combat housing bias, Andrew Cuomo, then secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, awards $15 million to 67 housing groups nationwide, including Long Island Housing Services in Islandia.
Century 21 American Homes in Westbury agrees to pay $20,000 to settle charges that one of its agents discriminated against prospective homebuyers upon discovering that one of the buyers was black.
With the anti-blockbusting law struck down, New York starts collecting names of homeowners who do not want to be contacted by agents soliciting clients. Homeowners in certain areas of Nassau County, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and all of Queens, are eligible to place their names on the list. The areas covered by the lists change as the lists expire and get renewed. By 2019, the lists include certain parts of Queens and the Bronx, and the Village of Chestnut Ridge in Rockland County.
ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based advocacy group, asserts in a report that government agencies are doing too little to combat discrimination and segregation.
The report cites the experience of Deborah Post, a black Touro Law Center professor and Harvard Law School graduate, who asked an agent to show her homes in predominantly white Smithtown. The agent took her instead to six houses in largely black and Latino Huntington Station.
The report says real estate agents practice bias “without fear of reprisal due to the lack of serious fair housing enforcement and the weakness of penalties.”
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that to win a housing discrimination lawsuit, a plaintiff does not need to prove intentional bias. Instead, it is enough to use statistics and other evidence to prove there was a “disparate impact” on a protected group.
Following a decade-long legal battle waged by fair housing advocates, a federal judge ordered the village of Garden City to pay $5.3 million in attorney fees and costs to the plaintiffs’ lawyers after the judge found the village had “acted with discriminatory intent” by rezoning publicly owned land to prevent construction of affordable housing.
Nassau County settled a separate housing discrimination case that alleged the county had steered affordable housing into minority communities. The county agreed to pay $5.4 million to promote mixed-income affordable housing.