Published in the NY Times, Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Baltimore is suing bank over foreclosure crisis
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
Baltimore’s mayor and City Council are suing Wells Fargo Bank, contending that its lending practices discriminated against black borrowers and led to a wave of foreclosures that has reduced city tax revenues and increased its costs.
The recent surge in homeowner defaults nationwide, generated by lax lending practices during the real estate boom, has officials bracing for a range of problems that often accompany foreclosures. Some municipalities, including Cleveland and Buffalo, are trying to make lenders responsible for abandoned properties to ward off crimes like arson, drug use and prostitution.
But the civil suit that officials in Baltimore are filing in United States District Court may presage another type of litigation against lenders by municipalities facing shortfalls in their budgets.
In the suit, Mayor Sheila Dixon joined with the City Council to ask that the court bar Wells Fargo from charging higher fees to black borrowers. Many of these borrowers paid more under the bank’s subprime lending program, designed for less creditworthy consumers, and are more likely to default on their loans.
In 2006, Wells Fargo made high-cost loans, with an interest rate at least three percentage points above a federal benchmark, to 65 percent of its black customers in Baltimore and to only 15 percent of its white customers in the area, according to the lawsuit. Similarly, refinancings to black borrowers were more likely to be higher cost than to white ones and to carry prepayment penalties.
The complaint requests unspecified damages to cover the diminished property tax revenues and higher costs that the city said it had incurred. Additional costs include those for fire and police protection in hard-hit neighborhoods and expenditures to buy and rehabilitate vacant properties.
Kevin Waetke, a Wells Fargo spokesman, rejected the contention that race was a factor in the bank’s pricing of mortgage loans. “We do not tolerate illegal discrimination against or unfair treatment of any consumer,” Mr. Waetke said. “Our loan pricing is based on credit risk. We are committed to serving all customers fairly — our continued growth depends on it.”
But Suzanne Sangree, chief solicitor for the Baltimore City Law Department, said: “This wave of foreclosures in minority neighborhoods really threatens to undermine the tremendous progress the city has made in developing distressed neighborhoods and moving the city ahead economically. Wells Fargo could do a lot, as well as other banks that have engaged in similar practices, to help to curb the flood of foreclosures that the city is experiencing now.”
Among the practices cited by the city, Wells Fargo allowed mortgage brokers to charge higher commissions when they put borrowers in loans with higher interest rates than the customers qualified for based on their credit profiles. The bank also failed to underwrite mortgage loans to traditional criteria, the suit said, setting up the borrowers for default. Such practices were common at many lenders during the boom.
Now, Baltimore is a city in a foreclosure crisis, according to the complaint. Citing figures from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, the suit said foreclosure-related events in the city, including notices of default, foreclosure sales and lenders’ purchases of foreclosed properties, rose more than five times between the first and second quarters of 2007.
Wells Fargo has been the largest or second-largest provider of mortgage loans to Baltimore borrowers since 2004, according to the lawsuit. From 2004 through 2006, Wells Fargo made at least 1,285 mortgage loans a year to area residents with a total value of more than $600 million. Wells Fargo now has the largest number of foreclosures in Baltimore of any lender, the suit stated.
Half of the Wells Fargo foreclosures in 2006 occurred in census tracts with populations that were more than 80 percent black, the suit said. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the foreclosures were found in tracts with populations that are 20 percent or less black. Figures for 2007 were similar, the city said.
John P. Relman, a lawyer at Relman & Dane in Washington, represents the City of Baltimore in its case against Wells Fargo. “Foreclosures have a more profound effect in minority communities because they are closest to the line of distressed neighborhoods in many cities,” Mr. Relman said. “That causes big problems for the cities, not just the lost income from taxes but also the long-term social costs. Programs are going to be needed to stabilize the communities to be rebuilt.”
The Baltimore complaint cited a 2005 study showing that foreclosures required more municipal services and higher costs. The study, commissioned by the Homeownership Preservation Foundation of Minneapolis, identified 26 different costs incurred by government agencies responding to foreclosures in Chicago and in Cook County, Ill., in 2003 and 2004. The analysis concluded that total costs reached $34,199 for each foreclosure.
Online story here. Archived here.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.