WASHINGTON -- Despite widespread efforts by lenders to end discrimination, regulators are expected to release data showing little improvement in minority lending last year.

While the total number of applications appears to have increased nationwide in 1992, the disparity in application denial rates between whites and minorities has narrowed only slightly.

The banking agencies have released 1992 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data for individual banks and communities, but have not yet released detailed analysis of national trends.

Speaking before the Mortgage Bankers Association last week, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry B. Cisneros gave some indication of the minimal progress that has been made.

|We Can Do Better'

In 1992, he said, blacks were 2.11 times as likely to be denied conventional mortgage loans, compared with 2.17 times in 1991.

And the disparity is only slightly smaller for government-backed loans. For loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration, he said, blacks were 1.71 times as likely to be denied loans as whites.

"This is simply not right," Mr. Cisneros said. "We can do better."

The banking agencies are expected to release summary findings of minority lending across the country Tuesday or Wednesday. Detailed information will be released on Thursday, when representatives of the banking agencies, along with Mr. Cisneros and Attorney General Janet Reno, testify before the Senate Banking Committee.

Concerted Effort

The news of little improvement comes as banks have developed and implemented scores of new programs and services to increase their lending to minorities.

Many lenders say the government's statistics on minority lending cannot possibly capture the wide range of programs and services they have adopted. And the efforts the data can pick up are unlikely to lead to significant improvement in just a year or. two, they say.

"The HMDA numbers are always going to be an imperfect measure," said Virginia Stafford, an American Bankers Association spokeswoman. For example, she said, efforts to expand outreach and increase applications can cause denial rates to increase because they draw less qualified applicants.

Standard Measures

However imperfect, these numbers have become the standard by which industry efforts are measured. Regulators and lawmakers have pledged closer scrutiny of these data.

Critics say the problem lies not so much with the numbers as with the lenders' efforts. They need to focus more on establishing flexible underwriting criteria, said Chris Lewis a banking lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America.

"The fact is much of the standard underwriting criteria applied to candidates have the effect of racial discrimination," Mr. Lewis said.

But some public advocates agree with the lending community that when looking at the HMDA numbers, the industry and its critics need to take a longer-term view.

"We've said from the beginning the eradication of discrimination in mortgage lending was not going to lend itself to a quick fix," said Allen Fishbein, general counsel of the Center for Community Change in Washington.

"When we advise lenders we tell them not to get caught up in year-to-year analysis," he added.

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