In the wake of attacks on Ameriquest Mortgage for allegedly predatory lending, one neighborhood activist group has rushed to the company's defense, citing its consumer-education efforts.
Last week the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now picketed Ameriquest's offices in 20 cities. The group accused the subprime home lender of deceptive lending practices, such as quoting one interest rate for a loan and then writing a much higher one on the closing documents, or wooing a borrower with a low teaser rate without disclosing that the loan is adjustable-rate.
Ameriquest officials declined to comment on Acorn's allegations last week. But Ricardo Byrd, executive director of the National Association of Neighborhoods, said Acorn was attacking the wrong company. In the last two years, he said, Ameriquest has backed several educational initiatives from the Consumer Mortgage Education Consortium, which includes Mr. Byrd's organization.
'We're troubled that Ameriquest was targeted," Mr. Byrd said. "They're one of the few companies in this industry that is being aggressive in making sure that consumers aren't being abused. They're spending their money to do that. I wish I could get more companies to put up money and not give us lip service that they simply want the industry cleaned up."
Last year, with Ameriquest's money, the consortium published a how-to guide, "Navigating the Subprime Mortgage," for fair-housing activists, consumer advocates, and credit counselors.
"The flip side of this mortgage industry success story is a growing problem of abusive lending practices," the booklet says. "More industry regulation is needed to protect consumers from lending abuses."
Ameriquest also financed an educational Web site, www.consumermortgage.org, and sponsored conferences on fair lending in 1997 and 1998. Mr. Byrd said the company has spent "hundreds of thousands" of dollars to back the education consortium's initiatives.
Ameriquest was required to sponsor educational activities as part of a $4 million settlement with the Department of Justice in 1996. The department had investigated allegedly discriminatory pricing at the company, which was then called Long Beach Mortgage. In April 1997 it spun off its wholesale division, which took the Long Beach name, and renamed itself Ameriquest.
Mr. Byrd said Ameriquest has exceeded its promises. "Unfortunately, other lenders haven't replicated the Ameriquest example," he said.
Valerie Coffin, a researcher in Acorn's Washington office, seemed unimpressed. "It's not about whether or not you can sponsor another conference," she said. "It's about whether you're having an impact in these neighborhoods. Ameriquest loans are having a negative impact."