Four milestones on the road to racial equity

By Elaine Gross

Four milestones were reached in June on the road to racial equity. They recognize progress while underscoring the distance yet to be traveled. They came at the federal, state and county levels, and all have significant implications for Long Island.

One was the designation of Juneteenth, June 19, as a national holiday. As the White House Proclamation states, “On Juneteenth, we recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality and justice.” ERASE Racism is dedicated to that work, and the nation still has a great deal to accomplish.

In another milestone, the Biden administration acted decisively to advance fair housing when it announced on June 1 that it was taking steps to address racial discrimination in the housing market. Those steps include forwarding to Congress the administration’s proposed interim final rule on the legal duty to affirmatively further fair housing. In the words of the White House, the steps will “align federal enforcement practice with the congressional promise in the Fair Housing Act to end discrimination in housing and will collectively provide the legal framework for [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to require private and public entities alike to rethink established practices that contribute to or perpetuate inequities.”

The mandate to affirmatively further fair housing by actively proposing policies and practices to eliminate housing discrimination is contained in the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But the federal government’s commitment to that mandate was undermined substantially by the Trump administration. President Biden is undoing that damage, but the federal government’s commitment to fair housing should not vary from one administration to another. That commitment is core to addressing racial inequity.

As the Center for American Progress states, “For centuries, structural racism in the U.S. housing system has contributed to stark and persistent racial disparities in wealth and financial well-being, especially between Black and white households. In fact, these differences are so entrenched that if current trends continue, it could take more than 200 years for the average Black family to accumulate the same amount of wealth as its white counterparts.”

New York state also took significant steps in June to address racial discrimination in housing, as the Legislature approved seven bills to that end. Among other actions, the legislation doubles the maximum fine imposed on real estate brokers and salespeople who violate the law, and adds a surcharge to the licensing fee paid by real estate brokers and salespeople; directs funding from those sources to be used by the attorney general for fair housing testing and other grants to local agencies and nonprofits to fight housing discrimination; requires additional training for the licensing of brokers and salespeople and renewing those licenses; and establishes that all state and local agencies that administer state housing programs, and all organizations that receive state housing funds, are obliged to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

All seven bills were recommended in the Senate majority’s investigative report on fair housing and discrimination on Long Island, issued in January by Senators Brian Kavanagh, James Skoufis and Kevin Thomas — all committee chairs — following an extensive inquiry and two public hearings, at which I was invited twice to testify. All three senators deserve great credit for leading this initiative. Enactment and implementation of the legislation will ultimately determine its impact.

Long Island remains one of the 10 most racially segregated metropolitan regions in the U.S., and Suffolk County has taken an important step to address that. Its Fair Housing Task Force, of which I was a member, presented its report to the County Legislature on June 16. The report recommends new protections in Suffolk County human rights law; increased support for the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, including funding for fair housing testing and increased funding for administrative law judges; and other recommendations, findings and determinations, including the creation of an advisory rating system for real estate licensees.

These are important developments at all levels of government. Further action is needed to implement these changes, and with time we can measure their impact. The United States, New York and Long Island still have a long way to go to achieve racial equity.

Elaine Gross is president of the Syosset-based civil rights organization ERASE Racism.