Protecting Fair Lending is Key to Our Economic Recovery

Alan Jenkins

Most Americans correctly understand that the economic meltdown was caused by a perfect storm of misconduct in the lending and financial industries and inadequate rules and enforcement. A 2010 Pew Financial Reform Project poll, for example, found that American likely voters overwhelmingly blamed banks for making unsustainable mortgages (42%) and too little regulation of Wall Street (24%) for the crisis.

Fewer are aware, however, of the role that racial bias and discrimination by lenders and brokers played in creating the crisis. Understanding that role and the tools available to correct it is key to ensuring our nation’s full economic recovery.

Despite the progress we’ve made as a nation toward the goal of equal opportunity for all, significant barriers remain, especially when it comes to mortgage lending by banks and brokers. In a 2005 report using federal data that presaged the current crisis, for example, The Opportunity Agenda, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council warned that—even controlling for income—African-American and Latino borrowers were significantly more likely to be sold high cost, subprime loans than whites, despite the fact that as many as 50% of those borrowers qualified for prime loans. Racial inequity in lending actually increased with borrower income levels, and with the degree of neighborhood segregation.

Loans in these communities were more costly, and were frequently predatory, carrying hidden fees and conditions or marketed through deceptive practices. Some, for example, were designed with built-in rate adjustment features making them unsustainable over the loan’s lifespan.

More recently, a series of lawsuits and settlements have revealed pervasive patterns of racial discrimination in home lending. In December 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice reached the largest fair lending settlement in its history with the lender Countrywide. The Department says that Countrywide discriminated on the basis of race and national origin against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers between 2004 and 2008, charging more than 200,000 of these borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers, and steering borrowers of color into subprime loans.

The Justice Department has settled similar discrimination cases against AIG Federal Savings Bank, Wilmington Finance Inc., PrimeLending, C&F Mortgage Corporation, Midwest BankCentre, Citizens Republic Bancorp, Inc., and others, reinforcing the reality that these practices are pervasive.

Why would subprime lenders disproportionately target minority communities for risky loans and, often, deceptive and predatory lending practices? There are several possibilities. Many minority neighborhoods, even middle-classed ones, lack banks or other traditional lending institutions, making them more susceptible to exploitation. People of color are more likely to be first generation homebuyers, with fewer sources of information, experience, or advice. Many lenders assume them to be poor credit risks, even when they are well qualified for traditional loans.

Lenders’ discriminatory treatment toward communities of color previewed and paralleled exploitative practices that they visited upon moderate-income white communities, senior citizens, military servicemembers, and more broadly. Today, consequently, we are all in it together, with some two million homes in foreclosure. In addition to homeowners, the mortgage crisis is displacing millions of renters whose landlords are in default.

Fortunately, solutions exist that can put homeownership back on track, repair devastated communities, and restore the promise of equal opportunity and fair housing for all Americans. Just as the Obama administration has correctly insisted on a review of loans to servicemembers, for instance, they should demand a review of loans in communities with high concentrations of discriminatory and predatory loan practices. The administration should direct the Treasury Department to issue long-overdue civil rights and fair housing regulations for programs it oversees. And Congress should modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to reach a wider range of institutions and to strengthen equal opportunity protections.

Other needed reforms include increasing homeowners’ access to financial counseling, reducing the principal of loans owned or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and maintaining a government role in the secondary mortgage market to ensure that qualified working Americans of all races have access to 30-year fixed mortgages going forward.

Acknowledging the role that racial bias has played in the financial and mortgage crisis is crucial to understanding the scope and scale of that crisis. Concrete steps toward greater and more equal opportunity for all are important to ending it.

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