Opinion: Suffolk Legislature’s New Housing Advisory Board

The Suffolk County Legislature last week approved the creation of a Permanent Housing Advisory Board to focus on housing discrimination here. The formation of a 15-person board follows a three-year investigation by Newsday which, as the measure establishing the board noted, “uncovered extensive evidence of impermissible steering of consumers seeking to purchase a home” and this “on the basis of race” and “throughout Long Island.”

“This practice,” it went on, “has reinforced racial divides throughout communities, despite fair housing laws which prohibit such pernicious discrimination.”

Among members of the board: the presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature who would be its chair; the executive director and also chair of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission; representatives of organizations including: the NAACP; Latino Justice; Long Island Board of Realtors; Erase Racism; Long Island Builders Institute; Long Island Hispanic Bar Association; and Long Island Housing Services.

Formation of the board was recommended in a report of a Fair Housing Task Force, formed in the wake of the Newsday series, which recommended such a “standing” panel. It was was submitted to the legislature in June.

The Newsday series was titled “Long Island Divided.” As Newsday investigative reporter Keith Herbert wrote in a piece on “How We Did It”—“Two testers of the same gender and age bracket—but of different races or ethnicities—are given matching personas. The profiles typically include the same family status, education level, type of job, level of income and credit score. After being matched in a pair, the testers tell a real estate agent that they are searching for houses with identical qualities, prices and locations.”

What was documented: the “steering” of testers to houses for sale based on their race or ethnicity. This is a key to how through the years minority people have ended up in ghettos on Long Island.

As declares the Fair Housing Task Force report in an opening “Background” section, “Suffolk County has a long history of redlining and other housing policies that have led to segregation. A 2010 study conducted by Brown University Professor John Logan showed that Suffolk County was the 10th most segregated county in the nation among similarly sized counties.”

What’s to be done?

Among the many recommendations of the Fair Housing Task Force is “increased support for the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.” It says: “In particular, increased funding and support for the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission was identified as an area where the county could take immediate steps to further the goals of ensuring fair and equitable access to housing. Support for the Human Rights Commission is critical, not only to ensure they may continue their work well into the future” but “without having to rely on grant funding.”

It urged “fair housing testing” by the Human Rights Commission.

And, it recommended “increased funding for administrative law judges” of the commission to “strengthen its enforcement ability.”

The Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, created in 1963, is now down to an executive director, attorney Dawn Lott, and three investigators. As a reporter, I covered the commission in the 1960s. Its staff years ago was larger than it is today.

There have been attacks on the commission through the decades. Suffolk County’s first county executive, H. Lee Dennison, fired the commission’s dedicated executive director, George Pettingill. Anthony Noto, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, was later to call for abolition of the commission after it pressed against discrimination by police. There have been other political assaults. Meanwhile, the population of Suffolk has increased and racism continues as the Newsday investigation showed.

In my Investigative Reporting class which I’ve taught for 43 years as a journalism professor at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, as part of students actually doing investigative reporting, every semester some students seek to go out in Suffolk and Nassau Counties in mixed pairs racially or ethnically to look for apartments or jobs. I tell students that I wish by now they wouldn’t find discrimination. But they always do.

To read the report of the Fair Housing Task Force, chaired by Legislator Sam Gonzalez, go to https://www.scnylegislature.us/DocumentCenter/View/78262/2021-Suffolk-County-Fair-Housing-Task-Force-Report-PDF

One of its conclusions: “Suffolk County communities clearly have been afflicted by steering and other unlawful discriminatory housing practices.”

 

 

 

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