Long Island real estate agents sell schools as much as houses.
School district ratings are among the most zealously watched indicators of quality of life by Long Island homeowners, not least because they can influence home values.
In many of Newsday’s 86 paired tests, agents applied a laser-like focus on districts, highlighting their perceived quality when recommending places that house hunters should consider buying – or avoid.
As one real estate agent explained it: “So, more important than Syosset is schools, because everything is by schools on Long Island.”
That reliance on school ratings as a top selling point can empower Long Island real estate agents to serve as gatekeepers for 124 highly delineated districts whose test scores, graduations rates and ethnic and racial compositions vary sharply. In playing the gatekeeper role, they risk running afoul of fair housing standards because discussing school quality can become a proxy for talking about a community’s makeup.
As the National Association of Realtors stated in a 2014 post on its website, “Discussions about schools can raise questions about steering if there is a correlation between the quality of the schools and neighborhood racial composition.”
Characterizations about schools with low test scores, for example, or comments that reference a “‘community with declining schools’ become code words for racial or other differences in the community,” the post states. As a result, such comments become “fair-housing issues.”
Additionally, fair-housing experts say touting or disparaging schools can put agents in legal jeopardy because many lack the expertise to make such judgments.
“Since when did real estate agents become experts on schools?” asked Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, who served as a Newsday consultant.
“It’s ridiculous because they cannot, they should not be trusted to provide objective information about schools and school performance rates,” Freiberg said.
“I might go into an area and maybe it’s not the highest scores I’m looking for for my son. Maybe it’s the music program. There could be a lot of different reasons why I would think a school was better or worse for my son that has nothing to do with test scores, certainly nothing to do with race.”
While some agents tested by Newsday told customers that they were legally barred from talking about schools, fair-housing experts say agents may provide information so long as it is strictly factual – and provided equally to customers.
The National Association of Realtors made clear that agents have a narrow pathway that involves sticking to “objective information,” not their personal opinions.
The author suggested that agents provide prospective homebuyers with school or community websites that provide ratings and data.
“The best thing a Realtor can do is guide them to third-party information, so they can make a decision on their own,” the post recommends.
Some agents touted districts as highly rated. Some denigrated districts as undesirable places to invest in homes. Whether based on facts or simply their own beliefs, some expressed perceptions about district performances that were in line with pointing buyers toward communities with substantial white populations and away from more integrated areas.
Some agents advised testers to research schools on their own through websites that provide educational performance data. One agent went further by telling house hunters to review published data to also determine community socioeconomic conditions.
“I’m not allowed to tell you where to go, where not to go. But I could tell you where to look, you know. And then you look,” RE/MAX agent Joy Tuxson told white tester Brittany Silver.
“Everything is online for the school districts. You’re going to see who graduates. How many kids. The ethnic breakdown, how many free lunches. You can get a good idea of the socioeconomic makeup of the neighborhood when you look at the school districts.”
Tuxson also made a disparaging comment about Wyandanch to the white tester.
When speaking with Silver’s paired tester, Payal Mehta, who is South Asian, Tuxson related advice she had given a family member who was house hunting.
“I sold my nephew a house, him and his bride … I said, ‘… you sent me houses with seven different school districts,'” Tuxson recalled, adding that she asked him, “‘Do you really want your future children going to Amityville school districts?'”
Asked for help finding $500,000 homes within 30 minutes of Bethpage, Tuxson provided comparable listings to both testers.
Tuxson did not respond to a letter, an email or a phone call from Newsday requesting comment.
Newsday fair housing consultant Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center, said that “both testers received listings in similar areas, but one or more statements made by the agent were discriminatory or involved possible steering away from predominantly minority communities and school districts.”
Noting that “the agent shared derogatory opinions about crime in the minority community of Wyandanch only with the white tester,” consultant Robert Schwemm, professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, wrote, “Whether she was wrongly stereotyping or not, she provided greater information to the white tester than to the Asian.”
Schwemm added: “The agent’s comments about Wyandanch and Amityville schools suggest that these towns could sue for the agent’s steering whites and Asians away from them – but it would be advisable to do additional testing by black and/or Hispanic testers to see if this agent makes similar comments to these minorities.”
Kerry McGovern, vice president of communications for RE/MAX LLC, said in a statement: “We have spoken with the franchise owners whose agents were included in the inquiry and are confident they have taken this matter seriously and are committed to following the law and promoting levels of honesty, inclusivity and professionalism in real estate.”
In the Amityville school district, more than 90 percent of the students are black or Hispanic.
The district had a 77 percent four-year high school graduation rate in 2018, including 20 percent who earned advanced designation diplomas after passing at least eight Regents exams, according to New York State Education Department data.
Most of neighboring Massapequa is part of a 93 percent white school district, where 97 percent of the students graduate in four years, 66 percent with advanced designation diplomas. But some of East Massapequa is zoned for the Amityville school district.
The boundary was key to some agents.
Realty Connect USA agent
Describing Massapequa as “beautiful,” Realty Connect USA agent Margaret Petrelli provided a white tester with a list of seven districts whose high school’s student populations averaged nearly 85 percent white. The agent did not provide the black tester with a list of school districts to consider.
“If you’re in Massapequa, you only want School District 23,” she counseled the white tester, using a Multiple Listings Service reference number, before continuing:
“You don’t want [District] 6 in Massapequa, because that takes in Amityville, and you’re not going to like those schools.”
Newsday’s consultants, Freiberg and Schwemm, concluded separately, based on information Newsday provided them, that Petrelli’s statements and actions raised evidence of racial steering and discriminatory treatment. (Petrelli also had asked the black tester for identification, but not the white tester).
Petrelli initially made an appointment to view the video of her interactions with testers at Newsday, but due to a scheduling conflict Newsday asked her to choose a different time. She answered that an alternate time would not work for her. She has since not responded to a follow-up email or phone call.
Five agents drew sharp school district boundary distinctions about choosing homes that carried addresses in the central Nassau community of Westbury.
Some of those homes are in the Westbury school district, whose student body is just under three quarters Hispanic and one quarter black. The high school graduation rate last year was 79 percent, with 23 percent earning Regent’s diplomas with advanced designation, according to the state Education Department.
Other homes are in the East Meadow school district, whose makeup is 54 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian and 4 percent black. The high school’s graduation rate was 93 percent, with 63 percent of the graduates earning Regents diplomas with advanced designation.
Salisbury is a hamlet of just under 2 square miles that carries a Westbury address but falls in the East Meadow school district. It is bounded on the north by Old Country Road, on the west by Eisenhower Park, on the south by Salisbury Park Drive and to the east by the Wantagh State Parkway.
The majority of Salisbury’s 12,000-plus population is white, at 70 percent. Asians compose 15 percent of the population, Hispanics nearly 14 percent and blacks not quite 1 percent.
Longtime residents recall intense resistance to integration.
Diane Kremin lived in Salisbury for 42 years before selling her home in January. In her early years in the community, she remembers people saying, “I won’t be the first to sell to a black but I’ll be the second,” along with stories about people threatening, “If you sell to people we don’t like we’ll burn your house down.”
Local groups pushed for a separate ZIP code for Salisbury over the jurisdictional confusion with Westbury in the ’70s and again around 1990, said Helen Meittinis, a local civic association president.
Kremin, who is white, said she participated to distinguish the area from Westbury – where today more than six of 10 residents are minority – and to protect property values.
“Westbury schools didn’t have a good reputation because they were more black than white. It’s primarily the school system. You didn’t want to be known as Westbury,” recalls Kremin, who sold her house to a Middle Eastern couple and adds, “It’s very different today because the value doesn’t decline because of diversity anymore.”
The five agents who mentioned Westbury to customers made clear that they meant Salisbury because of its location in the East Meadow school district. Only one of the agents suggested houses – a total of three – in the Westbury school district. In comparison, the agents offered 19 houses in Salisbury.
Realty Connect USA agent Petrelli, for example, told a white tester: “You have Salisbury and Westbury. You have – which, of course, I will tell you, there’s one school district that you’ll stay away from.”Watch videos of the tests
In the opinions of two agents tested by Newsday, the predominantly minority community of Elmont was an area to avoid “school district-wise” or based on “statistics.”
In the judgments of state and federal education agencies and a noted school advocacy organization, Elmont Memorial High School — one of five high schools from demographically disparate communities that together make up the Sewanhaka Central High School District – has been worthy of accolades.
The statements by the two agents, whose conduct produced evidence of steering in the view of Newsday fair-housing consultants, offer a window into how agents can guide house hunters based on negative assumptions that run parallel to race.
A largely black and Hispanic community, Elmont hugs the Nassau County border with Queens. In 2018, the student body of its high school, Elmont Memorial, was roughly 90 percent black and Hispanic. The four-year graduation rate was 96 percent, with 47 percent of the students earning advanced Regents Diplomas, down from 53 percent the year before.
The school boasted a four-year graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students that was higher than the average across all Nassau County schools: 95 percent earning diplomas, with 40 percent earning advanced Regents Diplomas, compared with the corresponding county figures of 80 percent and 35 percent.
Elmont Memorial has been recognized as a school of excellence by the U.S. Department of Education; received a New York State Excelsior Award; was named a New York State Blue Ribbon School of Excellence; and received the “Dispelling the Myth” award from the Education Trust.
“I would challenge anyone to come in and see how well our students do in Elmont and how, in terms of their graduation rate, the colleges and universities they get accepted into, the national recognition that they have received in such areas as the arts, Model UN and science research,” said Ralph Ferrie, in an interview before he retired as superintendent of the Sewanhaka Central High School District last June.
“It’s disappointing that people would look at a community and, just based upon its demographics, come to the conclusion … that that is not a quality high school.”
A researcher who analyzed Nassau County schools over five years, culminating in a 2014 report, said race factored into where white parents send — or don’t send — their children to school.
Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, was lead author of the 2014 report, “Divided We Fall: The Story of Separate and Unequal,” an investigation of Nassau County’s 56 school districts.
One facet of the research analyzed the relationship between home property values and neighborhood and school district demographics.
“And what you find at that time, around 2014, was that the percentage of black students in a school district decreased property value of the same quality house with the same lot size and everything else by $50,000 ,” Wells said. “So you start to understand the process by which segregation happens again and again.”
Wells studied what was happening to homes priced at the 2010 median in Nassau County of $415,000 as the percentage of black and Hispanic population rose from 30 to 70 percent.
The way the study put it: “both models indicate that a one-percent increase in black/Hispanic enrollments is associated with a 0.3 percent decrease in home values. Put another way, almost $50,000 in price would separate two otherwise similar homes, one located in a district that is 30 percent black/Hispanic, and other located in a district with 70 percent black/Hispanic enrollments (given Nassau County’s 2010 median home price of $415,000).”
She continued that people’s perceptions of an area really matter, and often that perception is “racialized.” The study showed that a white buyer is more likely “to choose the predominantly white and/or Asian school district, without ever stepping foot in the other school district.”
After interviewing real estate agents, Wells said her research team found that some held views on school districts that were not necessarily based on performance but often were influenced by the racial makeup of the students.
She said the research team looked at two school districts that had similar housing stocks and similar socioeconomic populations – but differed racially. “The real estate agents would talk about the quality of those districts,” Wells said, adding:
“And when we actually went in and looked inside the schools, there didn’t seem to be a huge difference at all in the curriculum and the quality of the teachers. So, they [real estate agents] do play an important role in steering people away from certain districts that are becoming more racially, ethnically diverse and less white, in particular.”
– With Rachelle Blidner
Correction: The section of Massapequa that falls into Amityville schools was incorrect in a previous version of this story.