Fair Housing Group Claims Bank Discrimination in Maintenance of Foreclosures

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WASHINGTON — A coalition of fair housing advocates plans to file a series of administrative complaints starting next week against banks they claim have failed to maintain foreclosure properties in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The National Fair Housing Alliance said Wednesday it will file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development next Tuesday against one bank, alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

Shanna Smith, the organization's president and CEO, said the group plans to file an additional HUD complaint against another bank the following week, and will file more actions throughout the summer. She declined to name any of the institutions.

The complaints will be based on the findings of an NFHA investigation into six banks, which found that properties owned by those banks suffered a disproportionate amount of negligence and maltreatment compared to properties in white neighborhoods. Those practices, in turn, had a disparate impact on residents of those neighborhoods, Smith said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

"The blight that these neighborhoods have suffered from is all the responsibility of the banks who own and have an obligation to market and maintain these properties," she said.

The investigation, which began in May 2011 and was funded in part by a grant from HUD, reviewed more than 1,000 properties in Atlanta, Dallas, Baltimore, Miami, Oakland, Philadelphia, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

Properties in predominantly African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods were more likely to have unsecured doors and broken windows; accumulated mail, trash or overgrown grass and shrubbery; and damaged exteriors, including obstructed gutters or damaged siding, the investigation found.

Homes in white neighborhoods were also more likely to have "For Sale" signs advertising foreclosed properties, while homes in African-American or Hispanic neighborhoods often only had "no trespassing" or "auction" signs, representatives from several housing groups in those cities said.

The group used enforcement methodology, not academic research methodology, to conduct the investigation, and worked with Freddie Mac and its real-estate owned division to determine best practices for maintenance, Smith said. It has received an additional grant from Fannie Mae to expand the investigation into other regions.

Peter Romer-Friedman, the group's attorney and a partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, said the complaints would not focus on a particular market or geographic region, but rather on a pattern of disparate treatment that the group has observed throughout the country. While it's not clear the alleged discrimination was intentional, Friedman said courts have found that an intent or motive to discriminate is not necessarily required to prove the banks violated the Fair Housing Act.

"The intent to discriminate is often … demonstrated in the law through substantial significant disparities, and we certainly have those here," Friedman said. "We have no doubt that either HUD or a federal court could easily conclude that the type of conduct that was observed by our investigation here is well within the framework of what Congress intended to prohibit."

The Department of Justice has filed or settled several lawsuits against banks in the last two years under the "disparate impact" theory, using data to demonstrate a pattern of discrimination even when banks claim there was no intent. HUD has proposed a rule to essentially codify the Justice Department's interpretation, despite complaints from the industry that the theory is flawed and the agency is overstepping.

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