by Paul Bowers
A watchdog group is accusing a Charleston Bank of America branch of discrimination after an undercover investigation found that employees treated Latino borrowers differently than white borrowers seeking mortgage loans.
To conduct the investigation, the National Fair Housing Alliance sent matched pairs of white and Latino testers into the bank at 540 Folly Road posing as prospective borrowers. In each pair, the Latino borrower had a higher income, more money available for the down payment and closing costs, and a stronger job history.
A branch manager said on Wednesday that she was not familiar with the accusations and referred all questions to a Bank of America corporate spokesperson. Later, the City Paper received the following statement from BoA:
Bank of America is committed to fair and responsible lending and has a strong record of supporting all local communities, regardless of demographic makeup. Customers from minority communities account for one in every four home loans we originate. NFHA has not provided specific information about their allegations.
Here's how a discrimination test played out in one instance, according to the NFHA: A white woman stopped by the bank and expressed interest in a home loan. After a brief interview, a loan officer followed up "almost immediately" by calling the tester, e-mailing her multiple estimates for monthly payments and closing costs, offering to offset her closing costs with a bank credit, and providing contact information for two real estate agents.
Later the same day, a Latina woman visited the bank looking for a home loan. A bank employee took the woman's information and told her she would be contacted by a loan officer. The Latina tester was never contacted.
In other tests, bank employees ignored or denied requests by Hispanic testers to speak with a loan officer or quoted higher monthly payments and closing costs to Hispanic testers, according to the complaint.
"We are disturbed by the unfair treatment prospective Latino borrowers received at Bank of America," says NFHA President Shanna L. Smith. "Obtaining information about and applying for a home loan should be a business decision, not one based on a person's national origin."
On Feb. 12, following a months-long investigation, Smith's organization filed a complaint against Bank of America Corporation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Bank of America is being accused of violating the Fair Housing Act of 1988, which prohibits landlords, realtors, and lenders from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
Now that the HUD complaint has been filed, NFHA spokesman Naweed Lemar says the ball is in the federal agency's court. "HUD takes a look at this complaint, they do their own investigation, and from there, there's a conciliation process where HUD talks to both sides," Lemar says.
The NFHA made Charleston headlines in January when it conducted a similar undercover investigation into housing discrimination against deaf and hard-of-hearing renters. The investigation ended with HUD complaints against three local apartment complexes. According to Lemar, the three complaints are still awaiting HUD investigation.
When asked why the NFHA sent Latino testers to banks rather than investigating real homebuyers' bank experiences, Lemar said that the group also does testing of real-life cases. He added that the undercover tactic has been effective.
"I think it's a great way to uncover discrimination," Lemar says.
Lemar says the NFHA has a grant from HUD specifically to conduct investigations in the Charleston area. Regional data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act shows that "over the past few years the number of purchase loan applications [Bank of America] has received from Hispanics has declined, and [BoA's] market share of these applications has significantly dropped in relation to its peers' market share," according to the complaint.