By Antonia Brogna
New York State settled an anti-discrimination case against Yaphank-based German-American Settlement League this May after the organization was caught using unfair housing practices based on racial discrimination in 2015. This type of illegal real estate dealing, however, is anything but new to Long Island.
“It was a former Nazi camp,” Ian S. Wilder, executive director of the nonprofit organization Long Island Housing Services, Inc., said. “The only way you could buy in was basically if your grandparents were born in Germany, which is completely illegal. You can’t limit where people can buy their house based on where their grandparents are born.”
In order to maintain a German population, the organization would only let homeowners advertise that they were selling their house in member meetings, meeting minute logs and internal promotions. These practices, however, will change under the new settlement, which requires the German-American Settlement League to change its leadership and comply with all housing rules enforced by both the state and the country.
“It’s amazing that it’s existed all this time and people weren’t aware of it,” Wilder said.
Racial discrimination in housing on Long Island dates back to the creation of the area’s first suburbs in the 1950s. Levittown was especially known for only allowing Caucasians to move into the neighborhood.
In 1968, the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act in order to try to improve the situation. The act aims to “[protect] people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The fair housing laws protect everybody,” Wilder said. “They protect everybody’s civil rights, not just what people often think as certain groups. Anybody could be a victim of having discrimination.”
Even though the Fair Housing Act was passed almost 50 years ago, Long Island is still rife with unfair housing practices.
Long Island’s housing patterns have long been based on racial and ethnic identities. In 2002, it was known as one of “the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States,” according to a report done for the nonprofit organization ERASE Racism.
Long Island has since become more diverse. Between 2000 and 2010, Suffolk County saw a 12.86% increase in its black population, while Nassau County saw a 9.79% increase, according to Census Viewer. Even so, these people seem to be building on the minority communities that have already been established instead of integrating into other areas, ensuring that Long Island remains one of the country’s most segregated suburbs, according to a 2015 report done by ERASE Racism.
This report also says that “housing discrimination” due to unfair housing practices has played a major role in maintaining segregation in these communities. Unfair housing practices refers to illegal actions purposefully taken by an individual or group to prevent someone from obtaining housing in an area they deem inappropriate.
“Fair housing helps put forward the American dream, which is to live in the home that’s the home that you wish to live in,” Wilder said. “People [should] have the ability to move to where they want to move,” he said, but sometimes do not because of unfair housing practices.
“Sometimes realtors tend to ‘mention’ areas that he/she may see for the client based on their heritage or wealth,” David Sthanapati, a realtor at Keller Williams in Greater Nassau County, said, explaining a phenomenon known as real estate steering.
When a realtor engages in steering, they often will only tell their clients about listings in areas they deem appropriate for them based on their personal backgrounds. This has been happening for decades, which has contributed to the creation of racial and ethnic communities on Long Island, ERASE Racism says.
“In the 1980s, my dad… he wanted to move his family out to Long Island,” Wasim Ahmad said. “He was being steered towards Freeport and Uniondale and so on and so forth, but he wanted to live in Merrick. It wasn’t until he got his white Jewish friend to do the asking that the houses he was shown was changed.”
Steering can also occur when people who are selling or renting their homes will only do so to people of a certain race or ethnicity.
“This one lady, we talked about her place and I was interested in coming looking at it, and at the end of the conversation, she asked me, ‘Oh, are you Asian or whatever?’” Ahmad said about an apartment-shopping incident he had in 2009, which he chronicled in an opinion piece for Newsday. “She was asking me, am I the stereotype of the studious Chinese student kind of thing or am I like the terrorist kind of Asian, the brown kind of Asian.”
The woman went on to say that her neighbors would not like her to accept someone with dark skin, but decided that she would “take a look at him” when he came to visit. He never did.
“That’s, like, so demeaning,” Ahmad said. “It objectifies me basically. It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s look at that slave over there before we buy him.’”
Discriminatory practices have prevented many Long Island towns from being considered diverse, a fact that Ahmad says negatively impacts communities.
“I think [diversity] is good because then you’re exposed to ideas that aren’t your own,” he said. He argues that a diverse population helps communities learn about what is offensive to minorities, such as cultural appropriation and blackface.
“If we’re gonna go forward in a society and recognize that some of these things are not okay, it’s necessary to have diversity,” Ahmad said.
Unfair housing practices also jeopardize essential American ideals, Wilder said.
“Where somebody lives determines what opportunities they have– the quality of the schools, who their peers are, what connections they make, what jobs are available, how they understand what opportunities are available for them in life going forward, who their role models are, who their mentors are,” Wilder said. “People should be able to live, obviously based on what they can afford, in whatever community they wish, and not being able to do that, it cheats communities, on both sides, out of being able to have a diversity of people and a diversity of experience. That’s the strength of democracy and that’s been the strength of this country.”