WASHINGTON - When the Mortgage Bankers Association of America signed a fair lending pact with the government last fall, both sides hailed it as an historic step.

The accord called for association members to enter voluntary agreements with the government to follow certain practices aimed at curbing racial bias in lending decisions.

But nearly half a year later, only three mortgage bankers have signed on. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency administering the agreements, had hoped that 75 companies would sign up within the first year.

The Mortgage Bankers Association professes to be unfazed.

"Three is better than none, and I think it is going to grow," Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the trade group, said in an interview this week. He said a dozen companies were negotiating with HUD.

In explaining the slow start, Mr. Lasko said new priorities had taken over both at HUD and in the mortgage banking industry.

HUD, he said, is preoccupied with defending itself from Republicans in Congress.

"I hear again and again that they are slowing in returning phone calls, that weeks if not months go by between discussions" with companies, Mr. Lasko said.

Mortgage bankers, meanwhile, are struggling for survival amid rising rates, he said.

Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said he wasn't surprised that only three companies had signed on to the agreement.

"The fear element has been removed by the elections," Mr. Guenther said. "This Congress is not going to slap the Community Reinvestment Act around the neck of the mortgage bankers."

And the administration is also pulling back from its aggressive pursuit of fair-lending initiatives, he added.

Mr. Guenther and other executives at banking trade groups had denounced the mortgage group's pact last fall, expressing fears HUD would use it to pressure other trade groups into signing similar deals.

Roberta Achtenberg, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, defended the progress HUD has made.

She acknowledged that the agency's start has been "slower than expected." But, she said, interest had not waned either at HUD or among mortgage bankers.

She added that her agency is currently working on agreements with 50 companies, and is still shooting for 75 agreements by September.

The three companies that have signed a pact with HUD are Countrywide Funding Corp., the nation's largest mortgage banker; Community Lending Corp., a small, minority-owned company in College Park, Md.; and Collateral Mortgage Ltd. of Birmingham, Ala.

Angelo Mozilo, chairman of Countrywide, was the first to sign a pact last fall. Collateral signed earlier this month.

Rob Couch, executive vice president at Collateral, said his company believes the accord is good business.

He said Collateral was advertising aggressively to tell black and Hispanic borrowers about its new pact with the government.

Collateral was already doing many of the things that are part of the HUD agreement, such as reviewing rejected minority applications for possible discrimination.

But the company hopes that signing the accord will send a signal of good will to minority borrowers that will lead to more business, Mr. Couch said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lasko said that his trade group still believed the HUD agreement was "the right thing to do . . . and the politically astute thing to do."

"There is going to be another election in two years and it could go the other way," Mr. Lasko said. "I don't think we're so shortsighted as to think that this issue is behind us forever."

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