Fallout over foreclosures is still dogging the big banks, and a Washington, D.C.-based housing advocacy group is pressing the issue with U.S. Bank.
On Wednesday, the National Fair Housing Alliance accused the Minneapolis-based bank of racial discrimination in its upkeep of foreclosed properties in Minneapolis, renewing a debate over who is responsible for maintaining foreclosed properties — and to what extent.
This was the housing group’s fourth announcement of claims against U.S. Bank, and its complaint now covers neighborhoods in 19 metro areas across the country.
U.S. Bank said it “categorically rejects” the allegations.
“NFHA has established a pattern of using incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading information in order to generate inflammatory headlines, while at the same time seeking significant amounts of money from our company behind the scenes,” said Dana Ripley, spokesman for the bank.
The housing group surveyed 28 properties in the Twin Cities — all but two of them in north Minneapolis, Robbinsdale and Crystal — and reported that homes in communities of color were more likely to have trash or debris in the yard, broken doors or windows and overgrown yards.
“The kinds of things we find, they just didn’t happen yesterday. Lawns don’t grow 8 inches in a week,” said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “There’s a consistent pattern of failure to take care of those homes.”
The group has been aggressively pursuing charges of racial discrimination in foreclosure upkeep for the past few years. It has filed claims with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo settled NFHA’s claims for $42 million in 2013. The settlement yielded $30 million for NFHA, but did not require Wells Fargo to admit it had discriminated and included no restitution for homeowners.
Banks criticize NFHA for failing to distinguish between trustees of mortgage-backed securities, an administrative role, and mortgage servicers, the banks directly responsible for the property.
U.S. Bank and other banks see the distinction as crucial. NFHA won’t release a list of the 28 addresses it surveyed in Minneapolis, but in the past, most of the properties it has accused U.S. Bank of neglecting were under mortgages for which U.S. Bank was the trustee of a pool of mortgages on behalf of investors.
While mortgage servicers must take care of foreclosures, U.S. Bank says, trustees don’t own the properties and aren’t responsible for their upkeep.
“We have no legal right or ability to service or maintain properties that are held in an investment pool for which we are trustee,” Ripley said.
NFHA counters that under the Fair Housing Act, trustees are legally liable for properties that are part of the pool of mortgages controlled by the trust. They can also put pressure on mortgage servicers.
“U.S. Bank has influence, if not control, over some of these servicers,” Smith said.
NFHA first filed a complaint, now amended, against U.S. Bank with HUD in June 2012. HUD has yet to rule on the complaint.
Banks sometimes have little incentive to maintain properties in poorer neighborhoods, because it can be difficult to find a buyer, the property may already be in bad shape and it can cost less for a bank to simply write the property off as a loss than to spend money to fix it and sell it, said Tom Streitz, president of Twin Cities Rise and former housing director for the city of Minneapolis.
Streitz said he can’t speak for NFHA’s methodology, but in his public and nonprofit work he’s seen that banks have failed to do a good job maintaining properties in poorer neighborhoods.
“It does happen,” he said. “From their perspective, a lower-valued property isn’t worth as much effort.”
He sees the problem as more systemic than anything, and more economic than racial.
“I don’t think there’s anybody sitting around at U.S. Bank saying hey, let’s make sure we screw over poor black people,” Streitz said. “What I would say is, does the same amount of effort go into maintaining a house in certain neighborhoods as in other neighborhoods?”
Smith, of NFHA, wouldn’t say what level of settlement she is hoping to get from U.S. Bank, but said she wants to get money to “help rebuild the communities that have been so harmed.”
U.S. Bank points out that its $1 million investment founded the Twin Cities Restoration Fund, which has redeveloped and sold 20 homes and is restoring 41 more. The bank also has donated homes to the Twin Cities Community Land Bank, which buys foreclosed homes at a discount, then rehabs the homes and sells them.
“It’s always difficult to maintain vacant and abandoned properties,” said Sandy Oakes, president of the Land Bank. “The Land Bank works with all the banks to provide a place where a problem property, or a property that a neighborhood is interested in preserving, can be donated with the hopes of being able to put it into productive use.”