During 18 years at NYCDCAS, Debbra McAllister completed more than $200 million in real property acquisition transactions.
Do We Have Fair Housing Now?
Although April is Fair Housing Month and June is National Home Ownership Month, we need to keep Fair Housing front of mind year-round. President Joe Biden recently proclaimed, “During National Homeownership Month, we recognize the power of owning a home when raising a family, planting roots in a community, building equity, and passing down generational wealth to continue the American Dream for generations to come.” However, for most of the 20th century, discrimination in housing was the law in New York.
In 1913, the National Association of Realtors (NAR), formerly known as the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), advocated for the use of “race restrictive covenants” on property deeds and discouraged “race mixing.” Landlords and real estate agents often refused to rent or sell to African Americans, Jews, and other groups. This discrimination was exacerbated by the practice of redlining, in which lenders drew a red line around neighborhoods, often those populated by African Americans where they refused to provide mortgages. The segregation we see today is a direct result of a coordinated policy of de jure segregation that still divides the state’s population along racial and ethnic lines.
NAR, an organization I proudly hold membership in today, encouraged discriminatory practices. Until the 1960s, the organization’s Code of Ethics allowed for discrimination against protected classes. Realtors were encouraged to “protect property values” by not showing homes in certain neighborhoods to African Americans and others. Back then, I could not have been a member of NAR, which is how NAREB, The National Association of Real Estate Brokers, was founded and chose the word “Realtist” to identify its members because NAR copywrote “Realtor” and would not allow African Americans to use this word to describe their profession.
Civil rights activists took their fight to the courts. In New Rochelle, attorney Paul B. Zuber won a 1961 federal court decision, affirmed by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Board of Education had deliberately created and maintained segregated school systems by gerrymandering the district lines and transferring white children out of the district.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in housing, marked a turning point in the fight for fair housing in New York. However, the law was not enough to eradicate discrimination in the state, and it was often difficult to enforce.
• In the 1969 case of Otero v. New York City Housing Authority, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for public housing authorities to discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or national origin.
• In the 1975 case of NAACP v. Town of Eastchester, the United States Supreme Court ruled that local governments could be held liable for discriminatory housing practices, even if they were not directly involved in the discrimination.
• In the 1995 case of Smith v. City of Jackson, the United States Supreme Court ruled that disparate impact could be used as evidence of discrimination in housing. The NAR filed a brief in support of the defendants, arguing that the use of disparate impact analysis would make it more difficult for real estate professionals to make legitimate business decisions. However, the court upheld the use of disparate impact as evidence of discrimination.
Despite significant legal victories, de jure segregation and discrimination in housing continues in New York. Recently the New York State Attorney General settled with several real estate brokerages after Newsday exposed discriminatory practices against African American and Hispanic homebuyers. In 2022 and 2023, the settlements included the creation of fair housing and diversity committees, the development of fair housing training, and systems for monitoring compliance. Brokerages also paid damages. The settlement is a reminder to real estate professionals of the importance of fair housing, as it is the fourth action this AG has taken to stop illegal housing discrimination in New York.
Today the homeownership rate for African Americans in New York is 34%, while the rate for the white population is 67%. As we reflect on fair housing’s long journey to the present day, I pose the question to you: Do we have fair housing now? Can any person live in any place in which they can afford? Can any person enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness here? Our job is to make sure the answers will be resounding, “Yes.”
Rey Hollingsworth Falu is a member of the DEI Committee of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors.