Lenders have made significant changes in their lending practices in an effort to provide more mortgages to low-income and moderate-income groups and minorities, according to the Consumer Bankers Association's second annual survey of bank and thrift lending.

One of the biggest changes in lending standards, the survey found. was increased flexibility in employment requirements. A total of 74.7% of the respondents reported such flexibility, against 56.9% a year ago.

Some other key findings:

* A reduced down payment was reported by 91.2% of respondents, up from 88.6%, and the average reported down payment fell to 4.2% from 4.5%.

* More flexible debt-to-income requirements were reported by 83.5%, little changed from 82.1% a year ago.

* Relaxed loan-to-value ratios were reported by 80.1%, up from 71.5%.

* Some 89% accept alternative credit histories - such as utility-bill and rent payments - and only 45.1% reduced the interest rate. Neither of these situations was measured in the first survey.

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"Credit counseling may be included as part of the lender's effort to help more people qualify for a mortgage, and loan rejections are typically reviewed by a more senior officer in an effort to find a way to approve a loan," the trade group said in describing its findings.

The survey also indicated that lenders were making greater efforts to target their marketing to needier groups, were frequently sponsoring counseling programs, and had sharply increased sensitivity training for employees.

The percentage of respondents selling at least some of their affordable mortgages to the secondary market increased from 57% to 60%.

CRA Called a Success

In a separate announcement, the association said it believes the Community Reinvestment Act has been successful and that, reform is needed more in enforcement than in the law itself.

"We believe significant improvements to the CRA enforcement process can be made without wholesale regulatory revision, which would be costly for all, and might fail to produce the desired resuts," the group said in a statement prepared for presentation to banking regulators.

Its key recommendations were: increased consistency in examinations, incentives for institutions to achieve better ratings, and elimination of unnecessary regulatory barriers.

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