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Philadelphia Accuses Wells Fargo Of Discriminating Against Minority Mortgage Borrowers

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Philadelphia has become the latest city to accuse one the nation’s largest banks of deliberately pushing minority mortgage applicants into home loans that cost more than these borrowers would have received if they were white.

In a lawsuit [PDF] filed in federal court this week, the City of Philadelphia accused Wells Fargo of having a “longstanding, unbroken policy and practice of intentionally steering minority borrowers in Philadelphia into ‘discriminatory’ mortgage loans” and of refusing to extend credit to minority borrowers who sought to later refinance those loans.

“These illegal practices suppressed property values in minority and low income communities in Philadelphia,” reads the complaint, “reduced the City’s property tax revenues, and increased the cost of providing municipal services such as police, fire fighting and code enforcement.”

The city says that, between 2004 through 2014, Wells Fargo issued at least 1,067 high-cost loans to minority homebuyers in Philadelphia that ended up in foreclosure. These foreclosures were also clustered in neighborhoods with high concentration of non-white residents, claims the lawsuit.

Minority borrowers with a fair FICO credit score (660 or better) were significantly more likely to end up in subprime or other high-cost loans than their white counterparts, according the lawsuit, with African-American homeowners 2.57 times more likely and Latino borrowers 2.07 times more likely to end up in one of these Wells loans.

The city alleges that Wells violated the Fair Housing Act by unfairly steering borrowers into these more expensive mortgages. Wells and other banks have previously argued that cities should not be able to bring FHA lawsuits since any harm they might experience would be far removed from the lender’s practices.

However, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — in a case involving Miami’s lawsuit against Wells Fargo — that cities are indeed allowed to bring FHA complaints against banks if those cities are able to demonstrate that they were harmed by the discriminatory lending.

To that end, the Philadelphia lawsuit argues that Wells Fargo’s alleged discrimination directly resulted in damage to the city. Those foreclosed properties lower property values, which leads to less tax revenue. At the same time, the blight caused by foreclosed, yet vacated buildings require additional city resources, meaning the city has to operate at a loss.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Wells Fargo about this lawsuit, a rep for the bank called the lawsuit “unsubstantiated.”

The Wells rep also pointed to the same SCOTUS ruling, arguing that it showed that banks “cannot be held responsible for harm they didn’t cause” while glossing over the fact that the opposite is also true: That banks can be held responsible for harm they did cause.

The bank also contended that lawsuits filed by other cities have been “rejected by all courts who have addressed the merits of the claims,” but there are multiple cases — including the Miami one, which has been sent back to the District Court — that are still pending. A 2014 lawsuit brought against Wells Fargo by Cook County, IL, had been on hold awaiting the SCOTUS ruling.

Additionally, Wells Fargo has previously reached significant financial settlements over allegations of discrimination. In 2012, it agreed to pay $175 million to close a Department of Justice investigation into discriminatory loans. The next year, it reached a $38.5 million settlement in a lawsuit that accused the bank of deliberately neglecting foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods.

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