By Aaron Glantz and Emmanuel Martinez —
This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
Fifty years after the federal Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in lending, African Americans and Latinos continue to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far higher than their white counterparts.
This modern-day redlining persisted in 61 metro areas even when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood, according to a mountain of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records analyzed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The yearlong analysis, based on 31 million records, relied on techniques used by leading academics, the Federal Reserve and Department of Justice to identify lending disparities.
It found a pattern of troubling denials for people of color across the country, including in major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis and San Antonio. African Americans faced the most resistance in Southern cities — Mobile, Alabama; Greenville, North Carolina; and Gainesville, Florida — and Latinos in Iowa City, Iowa.
No matter their location, loan applicants told similar stories, describing an uphill battle with loan officers who they said seemed to be fishing for a reason to say no.
“I had a fair amount of savings and still had so much trouble just left and right,” said Rachelle Faroul, a 33-year-old black woman who was rejected twice by lenders when she tried to buy a brick row house close to Malcolm X Park in Philadelphia, where Reveal found African Americans were 2.7 times as likely as whites to be denied a conventional mortgage.
The analysis — independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press — showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.
“It’s not acceptable from the standpoint of what we want as a nation: to make sure that everyone shares in economic prosperity,” said Thomas Curry, who served as America’s top bank regulator, the comptroller of the currency, from 2012 until he stepped down in May.
Yet Curry’s agency was part of the problem, deeming 99 percent of banks satisfactory or outstanding based on inspections administered under the Community Reinvestment Act, a 40-year-old law designed to reverse rampant redlining. And the Justice Department has sued only a handful of financial institutions for failing to lend to people of color in the decade since the housing bust. Curry argued that the law shares part of the blame; it needs to be updated and strengthened.
“The Community Reinvestment Act has aged a lot in 40 years,” he said.
Since Curry departed nine months ago, the Trump administration has gone the other way, weakening the standards banks must meet to pass a Community Reinvestment Act exam. During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the Justice Department did not sue a single lender for racial discrimination.
The disproportionate denials and limited anti-discrimination enforcement help explain why the homeownership gap between whites and African Americans, which had been shrinking since the 1970s, has exploded since the housing bust. It is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.
This gap has far-reaching consequences. In the United States, “wealth and financial stability are inextricably linked to housing opportunity and homeownership,” said Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy group. “For a typical family, the largest share of their wealth emanates from homeownership and home equity.”
The latest figures from the US Census Bureau show the median net worth for an African American family is $9,000, compared with $132,000 for a white family. Latino families did not fare much better at $12,000.
What Lenders Keep Secret
Lenders and their trade organizations do not dispute the fact that they turn away people of color at rates far greater than whites. But they maintain that the disparity can be explained by factors the industry has fought to keep hidden, including the prospective borrowers’ credit history and overall debt-to-income ratio. They singled out the three-digit credit score — which banks use to determine whether a borrower is likely to repay a loan — as especially important in lending decisions.
“While quite informative regarding the state of the lending market,” the records analyzed by Reveal do “not include sufficient data to make a determination regarding fair lending,” the Mortgage Bankers Association’s chief economist, Mike Fratantoni, said in a statement.
The American Bankers Association said the lack of federal enforcement proves discrimination is not rampant, and individual lenders told Reveal that they had hired outside auditing firms, which found they treated loan applicants fairly regardless of race.
“We are committed to fair lending and continually review our compliance programs to ensure that all loan applicants are receiving fair treatment,” Boston-based Santander Bank said in a statement.
New Jersey-based TD Bank, which denied a higher proportion of black and Latino applicants than any other major lender, said it “makes credit decisions based on each customer’s credit profile, not on factors such as race or ethnicity.”
Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.
Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination.
In an April policy paper, the American Bankers Association said reporting credit scores would be expensive and “cloud any focus” the disclosure law has in identifying discrimination. America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., has argued that the data should remain closed off even to academics, citing privacy concerns.
At the same time, studies have found proprietary credit score algorithms to have a discriminatory impact on borrowers of color.
The “decades-old credit scoring model” currently used “does not take into account consumer data on rent, utility, and cell phone bill payments,” Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina wrote in August, when he unveiled a bill to require the federal government to vet credit standards used for residential mortgages. “This exclusion disproportionately hurts African-Americans, Latinos, and young people who are otherwise creditworthy.”
A Case Study: Philadelphia
Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in America where African Americans were disproportionately turned away when they tried to buy a home. About the same number of African Americans and non-Hispanic whites live in the City of Brotherly Love, but the data showed whites received 10 times as many conventional mortgage loans in 2015 and 2016.
Banks also focused on serving the white parts of town, placing nearly three-quarters of their branches in white-majority neighborhoods. Reveal’s analysis also showed that the greater the number of African Americans or Latinos in a neighborhood, the more likely a loan application would be denied there — even after accounting for income and other factors.
When Faroul applied for a loan in April 2016, she thought she was an ideal candidate. She holds a degree from Northwestern University, had a good credit score and estimates she was making $60,000 a year while teaching computer programming as a contractor for Rutgers University. Still, her initial loan application was denied by Philadelphia Mortgage Advisors, an independent broker that made nearly 90 percent of its loans to whites in 2015 and 2016.
“I’m sorry,” broker Angela Tobin wrote to Faroul in an email. Faroul’s contract income wasn’t consistent enough, she said. So Faroul got a full-time job at the University of Pennsylvania managing a million-dollar grant.
But that still wasn’t enough. When she tried again a year later, this time at Santander Bank, a Spanish firm with US headquarters in Boston, the process dragged on for months. Her loan officer kept asking for new information, she said — or sometimes the same information again.
By this time, Faroul had been trying to get a mortgage for over a year, and the process itself was damaging her credit. Every time a lender pulls a hard inquiry on a credit report, the score goes down to guard against people who are trying to take on a lot of debt.
“They had done so many hard pulls that my credit score had dropped to 635,” she said.
Then, an unpaid $284 electric bill appeared on Faroul’s credit report. It was for an apartment she didn’t live in anymore. She paid the bill right away, but the bank said it couldn’t move forward.
Civil rights groups and real estate professionals said Faroul’s experience follows a familiar pattern of discrimination by banks and mortgage lenders that has kept people of color from building wealth.
“It’s one thing after another. It’s like pulling layers off an onion,” said Arlene Wayns-Thomas, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which represents African American real estate professionals.
Wayns-Thomas, who has been selling real estate for 30 years, said her black clients are treated differently by lenders.
“They may not like what happened between the last time you were working on this particular job to this one. They may see there was a gap,” she said. “I have seen situations where they’ve asked people for the children’s birth records.”
“The things that happen behind the scenes is what’s disturbing,” she said.
A Change of Tune From Lenders
For Faroul, things suddenly took a turn for the better after her partner, Hanako Franz, agreed to sign on to her loan application. At the time, Franz — who is half white, half Japanese — was working part time for a grocery store. Her most recent pay stub showed she was making $144.65 every two weeks. Faroul was paying for her health insurance.
The loan officer had “completely stopped answering Rachelle’s phone calls, just ignored all of them,” said Franz, 32. “And then I called, and he answered almost immediately. And is so friendly.”
A few weeks later, the couple got the loan from Santander and bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper. But Faroul remains bitter.
“It was humiliating,” she said. “I was made to feel like nothing that I was contributing was of value, like I didn’t matter.”
Contacted by Reveal, the lenders defended their records. Tobin, who turned down Faroul on her first application, said race played no role in the rejection.
“That’s not what happened,” she said and abruptly hung up. A statement followed from Philadelphia Mortgage Advisors’ chief operating officer, Jill Quinn.
“We treat every applicant equally,” the statement said, “and promote homeownership throughout our entire lending area.”
Faroul’s loan officer at Santander, Dennis McNichol, referred Reveal to the company’s public affairs wing, which issued a statement: “While we are sympathetic with her situation, … we are confident that the loan application was managed fairly.”
Reveal’s analysis of lending data shows that nationally, Santander turned away African American homebuyers at nearly three times the rate of white ones. The company did not address that disparity in its statement but said it was more likely to grant a loan application from an African American borrower than five of its competitors.
Redlining History Repeating
Lending patterns in Philadelphia today resemble redlining maps drawn across the country by government officials in the 1930s, when lending discrimination was legal.
Back then, surveyors with the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation drew lines on maps and colored some neighborhoods red, deeming them “hazardous” for bank lending. Leading causes of risk, according to government officials, included the presence of African Americans or immigrants.
This practice has been outlawed for half a century. And for the last 40 years, banks have had a legal obligation under the Community Reinvestment Act to solicit clients — borrowers and depositors — from all segments of their communities.
But in many places, the law hasn’t made much difference. When you combine home purchase loans, refinancing and home equity lines of credit, banks were more likely to deny a conventional loan application than grant it in more than 40 percent of Philadelphia. People of color were the majority in nearly all those neighborhoods.
“You’re killing us here,” said Cindy Bass, a member of the Philadelphia City Council, who worked for a mortgage company before entering politics. The data shows banks have frozen out borrowers in much of her district — including Nicetown, a North Philadelphia neighborhood where boarded-up row houses dot the landscape.
“We need dollars. We need investment,” Bass said, “like every neighborhood needs investment.”
Nicetown is among the neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s. In his assessment, government surveyor W.R. Hutzel said the hazardous neighborhood had some positives, including “new industry — good transportation” and a high school. On the other hand, he wrote, it had a “heavy concentration of negro.”
Today, the economic recovery largely has bypassed Nicetown. Blight is a major concern. Some of the vacant homes, empty for years, have attracted squatters. Although it’s just a few blocks from Temple University Hospital, banks and mortgage brokers largely stay away. Lenders have been particularly stingy when it comes to home improvement loans. From 2012 to 2016, they made 67 home improvement loans here and denied 315.
“It creates this cycle where properties fall into dilapidation for a long period of time,” said contractor Eric Marsh Sr., 48, whose family has lived in Nicetown for three generations.
Marsh started his own construction business “because I saw dilapidation and empty houses,” he said, and wanted to help. But because banks rarely lend here, there’s no capital to improve the neighborhood. So Marsh gets most of his jobs in more affluent sections near the center of town.
“I was wondering why people weren’t purchasing these houses or renovating them,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older and talked to people, I’ve found out that a big part of it is the lack of lending in neighborhoods like this.”
“It’s Like a Glass Ceiling”
It’s not only historically redlined areas that suffer from a lack of credit. Some neighborhoods that were predominantly African American decades ago have since gentrified and are now majority white. Today, they benefit from a large number of home mortgages from banks.
Other neighborhoods that experienced white flight after World War II have become home to a substantial black middle class. And in those neighborhoods, banks are more likely to turn away borrowers.
Four miles from Nicetown, toward the suburbs near the Awbury Arboretum, the homes of Germantown are set back from the street behind garden patios and beautiful stone facades.
This area wasn’t redlined in the 1930s. Government officials colored it green — “the best” — and blue, which meant “still desirable,” and told banks to lend here. Back then, most residents of Germantown were white.
Today, this part of Philadelphia is majority African American, and the homes are occupied by middle-class workers — teachers, nurses and union craftsmen. Yet in every year from 2012 to 2016, banks denied more conventional loans of all types than they made in Germantown.
“It’s like a glass ceiling,” said Angela McIver, CEO of the Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “OK, we’ll allow you to go this far, but … you’re not going to go any further.”
Emmanuel Martinez is a data reporter for Reveal. A graduate of UC Irvine, Martinez received his Master’s degree from the University of Southern California, where he studied radio and data journalism. Prior to joining Reveal, he interned for KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR affiliate, where he helped reporters acquire, clean and analyze data. Martinez is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.
Aaron Glantz is a senior reporter at Reveal who produces public interest journalism with impact. His reporting has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, a raft of federal legislation and led to criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. Because of his reporting, 500,000 fewer US military veterans face long waits for disability compensation, while 100,000 fewer veterans are prescribed highly addictive narcotics by the government. He is also the author of three books, most recently The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.