Veteran journalist Keith Herbert was a member of the team that discovered widespread racial discrimination at play in the real estate industry on Long Island, New York.
Keith Herbert’s reporting this fall had an explosive impact.
Herbert, a veteran journalist at New York newspaper Newsday, was part of the team that spent years testing for racial bias among real estate professionals on Long Island. When the results of those tests were finally published in November, they were shocking: Herbert’s team found widespread discrimination that involved scores of agents steering white homebuyers into white neighborhoods and minority buyers into minority neighborhoods.
The Newsday report has been among the most discussed topics in real estate during the final weeks of 2019, and has prompted soul searching from members of the industry. It also sparked an investigation from state regulators and the Long Island Board of Realtors.
Most of the team that worked on the Newsday piece — which also includes investigative reporter Olivia Winslow and editor and project manager Arthur Browne — will be at Inman Connect New York in January to discuss the piece’s findings and impact.
This month, Herbert, a deputy editor at the paper, also chatted by phone with Inman about his work on the report, and what it revealed about the real estate industry. What follows is a version of that conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Inman: I was hoping you could start off giving me some background on how you came to this topic. What set you on this path to begin with?
Herbert: When we started this it was 2016 or so, and about that time we were getting census update information halfway through the decade. And we were noticing that Long Island in general was becoming more diverse. So there were more people of color on Long Island. Particularly people from South America. Hispanic folks.
But at the same time we were noticing that the historically segregated housing pattern was remaining entrenched. So the new residents of Long Island weren’t to a large degree living outside of the historically minority neighborhoods. At the same time, Pat Dolen — who is the paper’s owner — had conversations with one of the fair housing folks on Long Island and there was a discussion about whether perhaps real estate agents might be in some way involved in that historic segregation pattern.
So he brought it back to the editors here and the editors laid that challenge in front of us. And we picked it up from there.
There were several bylines on the piece. What were your roles?
At the time the editors approached me, the idea of doing the story was at the formation phase. So some of the things about how we did it — How do we assign the test areas? How do we identify agents? — some of that stuff had just started.
When it really picked up for me was when we had to figure out how we would identify the testers. How do we get those testers trained? How do we get them prepared to go out and meet with agents? How do we get them familiar with the recording equipment? How do we get them up to speed on how to be a fair housing tester? All that stuff was kind of in my purview in the beginning. Eventually all of us got involved. But broadly, getting testers on the street to do a fair test was a big part of my work in the beginning.
Olivia Winslow, who is kind of a census and demographics reporter, she joined later to help with getting testers out and identifying relevant areas you might want to consider testing. She did a lot of the video watching once it came back.
Ann Choi is a data journalist who did a large share of the analysis of the data that was coming in.
I think one of the reasons this resonated with people so much is that there’s a sense these problems are widespread and there are many places where discrimination is an issue. Do you think they’re right?
I can only tell you what we read and what we examined as far as the material put out by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when it studied the issue of racial steering and unequal treatment in the housing market. They do a study roughly every 10 years that looks at this issue. And the levels that they’ve found in those studies are similar or consistent with what we found in ours.
So I would say based on the government research, this kind of, I’ll call it, failure to meet fair housing standards is not just on Long Island, but around the country.
The piece discusses some failures in training when it comes to agents and fair housing standards. So is that one of the answers here? Should there be a focus on better training?
Part of the series included two colleagues sitting through multiple fair housing training courses. So these are people training real estate agents on how to meet fair housing standards when they interact with the public. It’s mandatory training. I think it’s over 20 hours every two years. And we found multiple examples where the trainers provided insufficient training in telling the agents how the Fair Housing Act works and how you can get tripped up by not following the law.
Our investigation indicated that there are some lapses in training of agents. That being said, we also found that fair housing laws — federal law, state law, local law — there just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of enforcement of those standards. I think that’s the case around the country based on the experts we interviewed in Michigan, Connecticut and various places.
So it seems like there’s a need for more enforcement. And that’s one of the things that government agencies seem to be discussing in the wake of the investigation.
Why has enforcement not been up to snuff so far? Is it a lack of resources? A lack of will? Corruption? If the legislative structures are in place, why are we not using them?
It’s an interesting question. It could be lack of resources. It could be lack of attention. It’s a unique situation when you talk about housing discrimination because, as a minority, if I go in and look for a house I might be treated perfectly fine and I might enjoy the interaction with the agent. And I wouldn’t know anything about not being treated fairly when compared to a white person unless somehow I found out about how the white person was treated.
So it’s very hard to detect unless you do some type of testing like Newsday did. So maybe there needs to be more testing in order to learn how prevalent the problem is.
Why do you think the market didn’t solve this problem? Presumably people want to do more business and they want to make more money. So they’re going to take more clients and they’re going to do the best job they can. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the situations you’ve documented. Why is that?
That’s a question we as a reporting team pondered multiple times. But the reporting included a story about how the real estate market works when it comes to agents. And the research shows how they may be incentivized to actually participate in segregating neighborhoods from the standpoint that a neighborhood with a high white population could tend to lead to appreciating property values more rapidly.
So you’re talking about perhaps white steering, in the sense that you would steer white buyers to white neighborhoods and minorities away from those neighborhoods. And if you do that, according to the research, the real estate agent would get a higher return on a sale there based on the commission schedules.
So you can see where their effort, they may perceive, may be best spent catering to the white buyer rather than the minority buyer.
What would you say to members of the real estate industry if they want to do a better job? One person can’t fix systematic racism, but what can people do to address these issues on an individual level?
It would seem that the instructor in some of the classes that we observed may not have been taking fair housing instruction and training as seriously as they should. And I would say that anyone engaged in being an agent should keep in mind that they are licensed by the state and there’s an obligation to follow the fair housing standards.
That being said, there are multiple examples in our investigations of agents who are recorded on video tape who seemed to indicate that they know what the fair housing standard is, and seem to violate it despite enunciating that they were aware of it. I don’t know how you deal with that outside of more enforcement. I’m not sure more training would solve that issue.
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