Skin Color Still Costly: Discrimination in the U.S. Mortgage Market

With the weakening of institutional watchdogs and regulations for mortgage lending in the U.S., the future of consumer protection in financial services is jeopardized.

David Sawyer via Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Can your skin color help predict whether you may be financially exploited in the United States? Unfortunately, even in 2018, the answer is still yes.

In February of this year, Wells Fargo was sued by the city of Sacramento, California for allegedly discriminating against black and Latino mortgage borrowers since 2004. The specific charge, raised against the country’s third-largest bank in terms of assets, was providing these clients with more expensive loans compared to those offered to white borrowers.

Across the country, in Baltimore, Maryland, a study that found that black homeowners were charged higher interest rates and disadvantaged at every stage in the borrowing process compared to similarly qualified white borrowers – even taking into account factors such as credit scores, income and down payments. Over the span of a 30-year loan, the researchers say, discrimination against black borrowers cost them an extra $14,904 each, compared with white borrowers.

Homeownership is one of the most important ways for working and middle class families to build generational wealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 69 percent of a household’s net worth in America lies in the net equity in their home. And investigations have repeatedly shown that people of color pay a heftier price to achieve wealth than their white counterparts.

What are the economic implications of financially exploiting people of color in home ownership? More expensive mortgage loans translate into higher monthly payments, lower savings, and a higher risk of default and foreclosure. On a macro-level, consequences include a stagnant homeownership rate among people of color, a yawning (and growing) racial wealth gap, and continued institutional discrimination against people of color in the United States.

As a national consumer advocacy entity, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFBP) is designed to investigate claims of nefarious behavior among financial service providers and ensure that providers treat consumers fairly. However, its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity was stripped of its power earlier this year, with the removal from its mandate of oversight and enforcement. Commenting on the move, Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform remarked, ‘‘These changes . . . threaten effective enforcement of civil rights laws, and increase the likelihood that people will continue to face discriminatory access and pricing as they navigate their economic lives.”

The burst of the U.S. housing bubble yielded the Great Recession, which spread throughout world. Its origins in reckless lending in the subprime market convinced many people involved in the financial sector that consumer protection was urgently needed. In response to this gap, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law was passed. However, the current administration has since rolled back banking regulations, making it harder to detect discriminatory mortgage lending practices. Signed in May 2018, the new Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act would exempt 85 percent of banks from reporting detailed information about mortgage loan applicants. This means it will be more difficult to identify systemic issues, conduct research about them, and respond with corrective action.

As borrowers of color in the U.S. continue to access credit with the goal of owning a home, and the steady deliberate weakening of institutional watchdogs and regulations continues, the future of consumer protection in financial services for all remains in jeopardy. As banks continue to backslide into more discriminatory and predatory practices towards people of color, we as consumers and advocates should continue to be aware of and vigilant about them.

 

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