M&T Bank used hidden racial criteria to steer first-time home buyers into certain neighborhoods and particular lending programs, according to a housing group that sent women of various races to apply for loans.

The nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center Inc. sued the bank in Manhattan federal court Tuesday seeking an order prohibiting the discriminatory practices, requiring the training of employees and allowing for the monitoring of the residential lending process as well as unspecified money damages.

The center said it sent black, Hispanic, south Asian and white women to an M&T Bank loan office in New York to see if they were treated differently under similar circumstances, with all portraying themselves as first-time home buyers who were married with no children. A black tester was told she wasn't ready to buy even though she cited a higher annual income, more savings and a higher credit score than a white tester who was provided with information on condominiums she could afford, according to the complaint.

In one case, a loan officer told a white tester, "I highly doubt you're gonna buy in an area where you're a min ... more minority than majority," according to the complaint.

The lenders also steered non-white testers to consider applying for a mortgage through the bank's "Get Started" program, which is limited to homes in neighborhoods with more than 50 percent minority population, or in low-income areas, while white testers were discouraged from applying, the center said.

The "Get Started" program, started in the Rochester, New York, area in the 1990s, is available in certain counties in eight states and the District of Columbia, and all five of New York City's boroughs, according to the M&T website.

Mike Zabel, a spokesman for M&T, said he didn't have an immediate comment and hadn't yet seen the complaint.

The case is Fair Housing Justice Center Inc. v. M&T Bank Corp., 15-cv-779, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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