NEW YORK -- An influential group of community activists has accused Manufacturers Hanover Corp. and Chemical Banking Corp. of discrimination, laying the groundwork for a Community Reinvestment Act challenge to the companies' proposed merger.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, released an analysis Friday of Manufacturers Hanover's mortgage lending record. It said that Manufacturers shows "a clear pattern of preference in lending to white applicants over blacks and nonwhites."

Acorn also attacked mortgage lending by Texas Commerce Bancshares, a Chemical subsidiary, claiming "a pattern of racial discrimination worse than MHT's."

$10 Billion Pledge Sought

The activists are scheduled to meet today with representatives of Chemical and Manufacturers Hanover. One of their requests will be a commitment from the banks to invest $10 billion over the next 10 years in community development projects.

NCNB Corp. and C&S/Sovran Corp. made a $10 billion commitment in August to ward off challenges to their merger plan.

That action, however, did not stop community groups in the Southeast from persuading the Federal Reserve Board to extend the comment period on the merger and to hold public hearings on the banks' community lending record.

Group Wants Extension

Acorn has similarly asked the Fed to extend by 120 days the public comment period, now set to expire Oct. 22, for Chemical's merger agreement. It also asked for public hearings. The Fed has not yet responded to Acorn's request.

Manufacturers Hanover last April ballyhooed a plan to make $250 million in new loans over five years for projects in low-income areas in and around New York City. That promise has not assuaged protesters.

"We need some very strong guarantees that the new Chemical Bank is going to be very forceful about meeting the credit needs of low- and moderate-income people in New York, as well as people of color," said James Shearin, an Acorn leader.

At a news conference in front of Manufacturers Hanover's Park Avenue headquarters, Acorn officials cited data obtained under the home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

The law was recently amended to require lenders to report the race, gender, and income of all mortgage applicants.

Why Are Minorities Rejected?

John Stefans, a spokesman for Manufacturers Hanover, expressed concern that mortgage applications from minorities are denied more often than those filed by whites. But he denied that discrimination was a factor for either bank.

The turndown rate, he said, reflects a failure by many minorities to meet underwriting requirements.

But Manufacturers Hanover and Chemical said Friday they will set up a special pool to serve applicants whose debt ratios fall below traditional standards. The banks did not estimate the size of the fund.

The bank also announced a financial counseling program to help borrowers clean up their erroneous credit reports and new mortgage financing products for lower-income borrowers.

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