A fair-housing group is trying to crank up the pressure on Bank of America to settle claims that the bank discriminated against minorities by failing to maintain foreclosed properties.
The National Fair Housing Alliance, which has been making such allegations against the bank for four years, held a press conference Wednesday showing photos of dilapidated homes in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. These homes, which the group said had been repossessed by B of A, featured boarded-up front doors, broken windows and graffiti - but no "For Sale" signs. The group then showed pristine homes in white neighborhoods that were being marketed for sale.
The group claims B of A has engaged in a "systemic" practice of treating foreclosed properties differently depending on the race, color and national origin of neighborhood residents. In so doing, the NFHA alleges, B of A violated the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing. The Charlotte, N.C., bank denied the charges, which the group has also leveled against other large banks.
The advocacy group amended a complaint against B of A filed a year ago with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, adding 116 properties and five cities. That brings the total number of alleged violations against B of A to 621 homes in more than 30 cities. The group has filed a similar discrimination complaint against U.S. Bancorp (USB), which HUD is investigating.
In June, Wells Fargo (WFC) became the first bank to settle a discrimination complaint pertaining to repossessed properties, paying $42.5 million to HUD with some of the money split among 14 private fair-housing groups.
Bank of America was not contacted by NFHA about the properties to ensure the accuracy of the information, says B of A spokesman Dan Frahm. He says the advocacy group does not take into account that many properties are in a shambles when the bank takes possession of them.
B of A claims the majority of the properties in question were the responsibility of other entities, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, HUD and other mortgage servicers. Many of the properties were undergoing repair, already had been sold or had been donated to local groups in their existing, albeit poor, condition when the fair housing group conducted its investigation, Frahm says.
"Bank of America applies neutral and uniform practices to the management and marketing of vacant bank-owned properties across the U.S., regardless of their location," Frahm says. "There is no factual basis for assertions that the bank treats communities differently. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue."
A nonprofit, the NFHA conducts investigations and files complaints that are often paid for with HUD grants. Settlements typically include further grants to fund further investigations.
Shanna Smith, the National Fair Housing Alliance's chief executive, said at the press conference that her group has made "no progress" in negotiating a settlement with B of A. Wells Fargo, by contrast, took a "leadership role," she said, and negotiated in good faith.
"Initially all the banks say 'this can't be, we have a process we use, we hire vendors,'" she said. "When Wells Fargo sat down and looked at the photographs, they said something was going wrong. We met with the REO [real estate owned] division and lawyers, and everybody was working toward a solution rather than excuses.
"Bank of America has not held that same leadership role," she said. "These pictures are continued evidence of their failure."
Smith said many of the foreclosed properties in minority neighborhoods that were in disrepair came from B of A's own website and public records searches. She acknowledged that B of A was not provided a list of the addresses of properties to determine whether they were, in fact, serviced or owned by the bank.
"When they are willing to cooperate with this investigation, then they will get the addresses," Smith said.
On Wednesday, HUD announced that it had awarded $24.7 million to help local nonprofit fair housing groups "carry out testing and enforcement activities to prevent or eliminate discriminatory housing practices." The NFHA received a $325,000 grant.