Pressure from activists and politicians over what they call abusive subprime lending practices is on the rise.
"This is the No. 1 consumer issue in the country for low- to moderate- income people," said William Brennan, a lawyer at Atlanta Legal Aid. "Abusive lending practices are getting worse in terms of total numbers and the number of people surfacing with complaints."
The struggle between consumer advocates and subprime lenders has been simmering for years, but the issue was moved to the front burner recently because of efforts in Washington to reform mortgage rules. "Home equity lenders are facing immediate legislative threats that can seriously cripple this industry," Wright H. Andrews, a lobbyist for the National Home Equity Mortgage Association, said in a recent report to the trade group's board of directors.
Mr. Andrews and the trade group's president, Laura Borrelli, have been cooperating with the Mortgage Reform Working Group, a consortium of lenders and advocates, to hammer out a legislative reform that would be acceptable to all sides. The negotiations have left home equity lenders in the lurch. "This association's members are very shocked and upset, as they should be," by agreements other trade groups have hammered out to expand some legislation, Mr. Andrews' report said.
"The harsh reality is that these proposals, even if cut back substantially, still would have devastating adverse impacts on this industry and on millions of consumers it serves," Mr. Andrews wrote.
The pressure from consumer groups highlights what they deem abusive practices such as loan flipping-refinancing homeowners into larger and larger loans-financing credit insurance as part of loans, and charging exorbitant interest rates. Mr. Brennan said his group does not deny that less creditworthy borrowers must pay higher rates. "It's just that the rates are so much higher than they need to be," he said. "We understand that you should charge more for borrowers that pose more risk."
Several affordable-housing groups in North Carolina have coalesced to fight what they deem predatory lending; they announced their effort at a recent Community Reinvestment Act conference in Washington.