Banks deny claims of discriminatory lending in Philadelphia

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A woman walks past a Wells Fargo location in view of City Hall, left, in Philadelphia, Thursday, May 11, 2017.

A woman walks past a Wells Fargo location in view of City Hall, left, in Philadelphia, Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Banks denied claims of modern-day redlining at a City Council hearing on Thursday, arguing that the data used in a recent report that found racial disparities in Philadelphia mortgage lending doesn’t represent the full scope of their lending activities.

“[The] data, by itself, does not tell the full story when it comes to the basis on which mortgage lenders make their credit decisions,” said Monica Lynn Burch, community development market manager for Citizens Bank in a written testimony submitted to the council along with similar letters from PNC and Wells Fargo.

“The reality is mortgage lenders make their credit decisions by considering a great number of factors that are equally essential in loan underwriting, but which are not part of the publicly available…data,” Burch said. “These additional factors include such critical items as the applicant’s credit history (e.g., credit score) and debt-to-income ratio, as well as the interest rate, total loan costs, and loan-to-value ratio for the proposed loan.”

The banks were responding to an open invitation from Councilman Kenyatta Johnson to speak at a public hearing on racial disparities in mortgage lending. Johnson called for the forum in response to the report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). PlanPhilly produced reporting on Philadelphia in collaboration with Reveal as part of the national investigation.

But while a deep relationship with Philadelphia and its residents was part of the defense made in the Citizens testimony as well as those from PNC and Wells Fargo, none of the financial institutions sent live representatives to speak at the hearing. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is currently fending off a lawsuit filed against the city of Philadelphia accusing the bank of engaging in discriminatory lending practices targeting black and Hispanic borrowers.

The banks’ absence did not stop dozens of people from coming forward with detailed testimonies on the powerful impact of mortgage lending practices on neighborhood development, economic mobility and prosperity across the city.

“Listening to the testimony from the various people who sat on various panels but also those who gave public comment—it shows that this is an issue that affects all areas of life,” said Johnson. “When you talk about affordable housing, workforce housing, when you talk about the issue of gentrification, all of it is intertwined. In a city like this, everybody to should have a chance to follow the American dream, to become first-time homebuyers

In February, following the publication of the modern-day redlining report, Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced an investigation into lending practices in Philadelphia. The investigation will be done in collaboration with the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, according to the AG’s office.

“If I find any wrongdoing or violations of the law, I will not hesitate to hold anyone accountable and seek justice for all those who were harmed,” said Shapiro.

The state attorney general spoke early on in the five-hour meeting, focusing on how it’s common for banks and other lending institutions to justify their racial lending gap by pointing to low credit scores. Bank officials often claim the gap exists not because of race, but because those minorities have lower credit scores, meaning those populations are less likely to repay debts.

Shapiro told Johnson this excuse is “deeply problematic” and a “proxy to identify minority and low-income individuals.” He also pointed out the formulas used by banks to determine credit scores are not available to the public. What’s worse, “these secretive formulas are controlled by three for-profit companies: Experian, TransUnion, Equifax—the same Equinox that recently suffered a data breach so massive that it exposed the personal information of 145 million Americans,” said Shapiro.

Councilman Johnson and Councilwoman Cherelle Parker wanted to know exactly how the city has, in the past, penalized banks for this kind of behavior. They turned to City Treasurer Rasheia Johnson for answers.

“We can’t tell banks how to operate,” she said before a member of the audience interrupted her with a shout of “What.”

“However, we can work with them to become better citizens,”  the city official continued.

Johnson recommended active communication with banks about the issue.  City officials can tell institutions, he said, “before you even think about submitting an RFP, here’s our standard.”

A few experts warned council against starting a standoff with big banks.

“There’s nothing stopping the city from asking the banks for this information on a more timely basis,” Dean of  Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business Frank Linnehan said. “So, you can ask banks—and potentially with the help of a third party—to put a consortium together and say, ‘hey look, this is the information we’d like to see. We’re not accusing you, yet, because we don’t have the data of predatory or unfair lending practices. However, what we need to do is we need to look at the data to see what the wealth levels are, what the debt levels are, for these applicants.’”

Linnehan also pointed out that banks sell mortgages on the secondary market, so it’s not always the banks that are the issue — it’s the constraints of the secondary market and whether or not banks can sell these assets.

“If the loans themselves are in compliance with the regular requirements of the secondary market, and that, in effect, has a discriminatory impact, then it’s not the bank that is the issue, it’s really more the institutional structural system we have,” he said. “So, I think by reaching out to banks with an understanding of these concerns, you may get more of an agreeableness in this outreach to them.”

After four hours of testimony, a group of Point Breeze residents came up to the microphone to speak. Tiffany Green accused the city of supporting white developers as they develop black neighborhoods without taking into account the needs of existing residents. That, she said, sends a message to banks that it’s okay to leave them in the dust.

“Monkey see, monkey do,” said Green.

The hearing ended with no clear conclusions. Johnson said his next step is to investigate the banks in business with city government, and then come up with a plan to address any troubling patterns revealed.

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