Newsday Investigation Finds Evidence of Unequal Treatment Among House Buyers

Pictured clockwise are the Long Island Divided team: Arthur Browne, Olivia Winslow, Keith Herbert and Ann Choi. (Photo provided)

A three-year Newsday investigation recently brought to light that real estate agents on Long Island were guilty of discriminating against house buyers due to their ethnicity.

Called Long Island Divided, the 13-part series was released in November 2019, but it all started in 2016 when Newsday reporters were looking into census figures and discovered consistent segregation patterns throughout the region. In addition, Newsday owner, Patrick Dolan, had heard from community members that the real estate industry was not meeting fair housing standards.

Newsday decided to investigate by sending 25 testers into local real estate agencies. The investigation team was large, but reporters Ann Choi, Keith Herbert, Olivia Winslow and project editor Arthur Browne led the way.

The testers consisted of actors and volunteers: 10 were white, nine black, five Hispanic and three Asian. Their ages varied as well, from a 20-year-old college student to an established 60-year-old. Each tester was paired with a partner with an equal profile—the same gender, age, income and credit scores.

“It was very important that they be as comparable as possible so that it would tend to eliminate all other factors beyond race or ethnicity,” Browne said. “We also used Zillow to tell us how many homes were available in the test zone on the dates of a test so that we could be sure that the market was similar.”

The tests took place from April 2016 to August 2017. The testers began their day by memorizing a profile and calling an agency that Newsday wanted to test. In preparation, testers also participated in a day-long training session where they learned how to be fair housing testers. Testers were equipped with either a body camera or a camera attached to a purse. According to the report, New York is a one-party state, so only one party has to consent to a recording.

Over the course of the investigation, Newsday completed 86 tests with 93 agents and 5,763 house listings. It resulted in 240 hours of secretly recorded footage.

The lead reporters spent months reviewing the footage, making sure that the testers presented the same information. If a test varied slightly, it was thrown out.

The reporters also evaluated the agent’s level of service with the help of two consultants: Fred Freiberg, who co-founded the Fair Housing Justice Center in 2004, and Robert Schwemm, the Everett H. Metcalf Jr. Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky College of Law.

No one at Newsday anticipated this project to take three years. Aside from the investigation process, reaching out to agencies took up time as well. Newsday contacted every agency involved and explained what had transpired in the recordings. Each one was given a chance to view the footage and provide a comment, but only 13 agents and 21 corporate representatives chose to respond.

Ultimately, the investigation uncovered that black testers experienced disparate treatment 49 percent of the time, Hispanics 39 percent of the time and Asians 19 percent of the time.

Since the series was published, Newsday plans to monitor what happens legislatively and what real estate agencies intend to change about the disparate treatment.

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