Housing bias in black and white: Andrew Cuomo targets discrimination that's still rampant in N.Y.
State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is forcefully speaking about - and taking action against - New York's dirty little secret: the housing discrimination that makes the Big Apple one of the most racially segregated cities in America.
"Discrimination is alive and well in America today," Cuomo (above) said at a press conference Tuesday announcing lawsuits against landlords in Brooklyn and upstate Schenectady County.
(Full disclosure: My wife, Juanita Scarlett, works for the attorney general.)
"In life and society, you will never solve a problem you're unwilling to admit," Cuomo said. "We don't want to admit that we discriminate."
That's putting it mildly. Few areas of city life are as shrouded in denial and hypocrisy as the welter of public and private mechanisms that keep New York divided.
Landlords, real estate agents and management companies still steer applicants into white, black or Latino enclaves - all in violation of the law.
Single women and young parents are often told that a building doesn't want to rent to families with children. That's illegal, too, under federal, state and local housing laws.
But the laws don't matter if nobody enforces them, which is why Cuomo deserves kudos for suing violators.
Over the last few years, the attorney general's office has conducted more than 200 tests in neighborhoods around the state. Trained testers, some black and some white, presented similar income and career profiles at apartment complexes and recorded the treatment they received.
At 1648-50 and 1750 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn and the Shady Lane apartments in upstate Glenville, Cuomo alleges, black testers were steered away.
Some were told there were no apartments available when it wasn't true. In other cases, black testers were told they had to fill out an application and make an appointment to see an apartment, while white testers were simply shown the units.
In still other instances, blacks were told that a flood of applications meant theirs would never be looked at - discouraging information not conveyed to whites.
"New York State law is modeled on the fair housing federal law. There is nothing ambiguous about it," said Cuomo.
Cuomo has gone after other lawbreakers in the housing business: Earlier this year, a settlement with six major apartment operators led to changes and retrofitting so that disabled tenants would have full use of the complexes.
And he's getting some results. One of the three landlords shamed this week has agreed to pay a $40,000 fine and to be monitored over the next few years. That's a start.
But all too often, the attorney general is a solo act. Other agencies tasked with enforcing the fair housing laws - including the city and state human rights commissions - are AWOL.
Patricia Gatling, chairwoman of the city Human Rights Commission, told me in a written statement that her agency "vigorously enforces the city Human Rights Law."
How vigorously, I have no idea. An agency spokeswoman was unable to tell me how many fair housing cases it has brought during the eight-plus years of the Bloomberg administration.
That's not terribly comforting, coming from an administration that boasts of how it measures, and manages, every important city function. Apparently, enforcing anti-bias laws doesn't make the cut.
Mayor Bloomberg has sent other signals over the years that breaking down the walls of our segregated city - from its neighborhoods to the municipal workforce he controls - is not a priority.
The administration was recently found by a federal court to have intentionally discriminated against black applicants to the city's Fire Department for years. And a recent New York Times analysis of Bloomberg's top advisers shows that 78% of the top 321 mayoral advisers - and 74% of the top 1,100 - are white.
"There has been, in my opinion, an unholy alliance in this city, where patterns of segregation are accepted by a variety of political leaders," says says Craig Gurian, executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center, a civil rights organization.
"You have to have a belief in civil rights enforcement like every other kind of law enforcement. You have to make it more than a once-in-a-while kind of thing," says Gurian. "People have to think, 'I might get caught.' "
Not only do violators need to be on alert, but our elected leaders - including Bloomberg and the City Council - need to find the courage to recognize, denounce and battle our city's secret shame.