On February 28, 1944, as a result of citywide concerns about race relations following riots in 1943, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia created the Mayor's Committee on Unity by Executive Order. Its purpose was "to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality." The Committee had no enforcement powers, and relied solely on the persuasive powers of its members to accomplish its objectives.
The Committee achieved many things during its existence, including aiding in the passage of State Fair Employment Legislation and the Fair Educational Practices Act. Within New York City, the Committee did its best to promote understanding in the wake of anti-Semitic disturbances in Coney Island, the picketing of white merchants by Harlem consumer groups, and two riots in New York City high schools. The Committee also investigated city services in depressed areas of the City.
By the mid 1950s, however, it was apparent that without enforcement powers the Committee could not address problems of discrimination and bias in the City. In 1955, Mayor Robert F. Wagner and the City Council moved to replace the Committee with a city agency that had more extensive powers and permanent status. The Commission on Intergroup Relations ("COIR") was established on July 1, 1955 under Local Law 55 to replace the original Committee on Unity.
COIR was given the power to receive and investigate complaints, and to initiate its own investigations into racial, religious and ethnic group tensions on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin and ancestry. It was empowered to hold hearings, to report its findings of facts and to make recommendations to the Mayor. COIR was also charged with studying the problems of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, discrimination and disorder caused by intergroup tension, and developing intergroup dialogue. It also coordinated efforts among federal, state and city agencies to develop courses of instruction on techniques for achieving harmonious intergroup relations within the City of New York.
The first major expansion of COIR's powers was in 1958, with the passage of the Fair Housing Practices Law (Local Law 80, the Sharkey-Brown-Isaacs Law). This legislation, which gave COIR the power to investigate and hold hearings on allegations of discrimination in private housing, was the first in the nation to extend protection against discrimination to private housing.
In 1962, the Commission on Intergroup Relations was renamed the Commission on Human Rights. In 1965, Local Law 55 and Local Law 80 were amended and combined into Local Law 97, the Human Rights Law of the City of New York (Chapter I, Title B, later Title 8, of the Administrative Code of the City of New York). This amendment greatly expanded the Commission's powers of investigation and enforcement, and extended the Commission's jurisdiction to prosecute discrimination based on race, creed, color and national origin in employment, public accommodations and housing, as well as commercial space.
The next decade saw much growth in the Human Rights Law. The Commission's jurisdiction was expanded through successive amendments to cover disability, gender discrimination in public accommodation, reasonable accommodation in employment for religious observances, gender and marital status in housing accommodations and commercial spaces, and age in housing and public accommodations.
During the 1980s, there were many amendments to the Human Rights Law. Protection on the basis of mental disability was added in 1981. In 1984, the Private Clubs Bill, Local Law 63, prohibited discrimination by private clubs with more than 400 members. Protection on the basis of citizenship and alien status was added, and jurisdiction over housing discrimination was extended to include protection of lawful occupation and persons with children. In 1986, landmark legislation extended coverage of the Human Rights Law to include sexual orientation.
In 1991, the Human Rights Law was extensively revised and amended. For the first time protection in employment on the basis of conviction or arrest record was enumerated in the Administrative Code. In addition, the amendments broadened liability and they afforded new protection for individuals retaliated against for opposing discrimination.
In 1993, the Human Rights Law was amended once again to provide remedies for bias-related harassment.
In 2001, status as a victim of domestic violence was made a protected class with regard to employment.
In April 2002, the City Human Rights Law was amended by defining "gender" to include actual or perceived sex as well as a "person's gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to that person at birth."
In December 2003, the City Human Rights Law was amended once again protecting victims of domestic violence, sex offenses and stalking in the workplace. The Law requires all employers provide reasonable accommodation to victims of these crimes.
In October 2005, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed Local Law 85, The Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, into law. This amendment to New York City's Human Rights Law was meant to ensure that the rights of those who live, work and play in New York City will continue to be protected by the strongest civil rights law in the country, despite recent state and federal court decisions diminishing the impact of groundbreaking civil rights legislation and 50 years of precedent.
The changes include a statement that state and federal law are the minimum standards to be applied when analyzing cases under the City's Human Rights Law, a clarification that an adverse impact is not required in retaliation cases, and an indication that a plaintiff whose action was a catalyst for a change in policy may be considered a prevailing party for the purposes of awarding attorney fees in state or federal court. In addition, among other things, the amendment added "partnership status" as a protected class under the law, requires the Commission to conduct "thorough" investigations and increased the penalties that the Commission is empowered to access.
The New York City Human Rights Law was amended by the City Council in March 2008 to make 'any lawful source of income' a new protected class. This amendment prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on the fact that they receive federal rent-subsidy vouchers, (Section 8) or other government assistance to pay their rent.
The New York City Human Rights Law was amended once again by the City Council in December, 2010 to require specific information in the Commission's annual report.
In June 2011, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed Local Law 36 into law. This amendment to New York City's Human Rights Law requires the Commission to educate the public on various types of bias-related harassment, including cyberbullying.
A new amendment to the City Human Rights Law in June 2013 prohibits discrimination in employment based on an individual's unemployment status.
In November 2013, the Human Rights Law was amended to prohibit bias-based profiling by law enforcement.
In 2014, two new amendments were added to the Human Rights Law. The January amendment makes it illegal for an employer to refuse to provide a reasonable accommodation because of a pregnancy, having a child, or related medical conditions. It also requires employers to provide written notice to their employees regarding the right of pregnant workers to be free from discrimination. The April amendment added interns to the law. Whether paid or unpaid, interns have the same protections from discrimination as employees.
In 2015, the City passed several laws amending the New York City Human Rights Law. Local Law No. 29 requires the Commission to include in its annual report the total number of investigations initiated by the Law Enforcement Bureau, the total number of complaints initiated by the Law Enforcement Bureau, the total number of investigations referred to the corporation counsel, and the total number of reports and publications produced by the Commission. Local Law No. 33 requires the Law Enforcement Bureau to conduct no fewer than five matched-pair testing investigations in employment over a twelve month period commencing on or before October 1, 2015, and submit a report on or before March 1, 2017, including certain key information about those investigations. Local Law No. 32 requires the Law Enforcement Bureau to conduct no fewer than five matched-pair testing investigations in housing over a twelve month period commencing on or before October 1, 2015, and submit a report on or before March 1, 2017, including certain key information about those investigations. Local Law No. 37 makes it illegal to inquire about or check the credit history of job applicants or employees. Local Law No. 63 makes it illegal to ask about or consider criminal history in making employment decisions until after a conditional offer has been extended.