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Not all foreclosures are equal

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We know from numerous reports that the housing crisis hit minority families pretty hard. Minority homebuyers by the tens of thousands were trapped in predatory mortgage loans and, as a result, their communities disproportionately felt the impact of foreclosures.

Now fair-housing organizations have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging discrimination in the marketing and maintenance of foreclosed properties in minority neighborhoods in nine major cities. The banks targeted by the National Fair Housing Alliance and four of its member organizations are U.S. Bank and its parent company, U.S. Bancorp, along with Wells Fargo.

The complaints were the result of an investigation in which the housing groups said foreclosed properties in predominantly white areas were much better maintained than properties in predominantly African American or Latino neighborhoods. The groups examined more than 1,000 properties in Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Ohio, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Washington.

U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo have denied discrimination and questioned whether the properties that got failing marks were even their responsibility to maintain.

“In the vast majority of cases where U.S. Bank is involved in a foreclosure, we serve as a trustee for an investment pool where the former mortgage was held, and have no role in servicing or maintaining the property,” Nicole Garrison-Sprenger, vice president of corporate public relations, said in a statement. “When we do own a property, we have a strong and comprehensive process in place to regularly inspect and maintain properties to marketing standards where we have legal access, regardless of their location.”

Wells Fargo said in a statement that the bank “conducts all lending- and servicing-related activities in a fair and consistent manner without regard to race, and this includes maintenance and marketing standards for all foreclosed properties for which we are responsible. Regrettably, the complaint does not include specific property information that can allow us to investigate the circumstances in any of the markets they list.”

The properties examined by the housing groups were evaluated on a 100-point scale. Points were subtracted for routine maintenance issues, including broken windows and doors, unshoveled snow, overgrown lawns and trash on the property.

Although properties in predominantly white neighborhoods “were more likely to have neatly manicured lawns, securely locked doors and attractive ‘for sale’ signs out front, homes in communities of color were more likely to have overgrown yards littered with trash, unsecured doors, broken windows and indications of marketing as a distressed sale,” the report said.

The report noted that properties in communities of color were 42 percent more likely to have more than a dozen maintenance problems compared with properties in predominantly white neighborhoods. In many cases, the report added, the deterioration occurred while properties were under bank ownership and could be attributed to lender neglect.

By allowing inferior maintenance standards for properties in minority communities, the institutions are creating substandard communities where values will continue to decline, said Shanna L. Smith, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

“The investigation did not focus on people who lost their homes, but rather the homeowners living next door to or down the street from the vacant foreclosed property and the impact that poorly maintained foreclosure is having on their property values — their homeowners insurance costs, their increased property taxes to make up for the lost tax revenue from the foreclosures in their neighborhood,” Smith said. “It addresses the harm in economic and safety terms for the homeowners left behind in the neighborhood, particularly in communities of color.”

Smith added that if banks don’t properly maintain their assets, many of the related expenses become the burden of the local government.

“The local municipality has to mow the lawn and incur costs for nuisance abatement,” Smith said. “The vacant home with windows opened can encourage vandalism and theft by people outside of the neighborhood looking to steal appliances, water heaters, HVAC units or copper wiring.”

Here’s why this report is so important. We have to stop saying “this isn’t my problem.” Encourage your representatives to do what the Maryland legislature has recently done to address the issue of unmaintained vacant and foreclosed properties.

Following the advice of a foreclosure task force, the legislature passed a bill that requires the creation of an Internet-based registry that will help communities identify who is responsible for foreclosed properties. Within 30 days of a foreclosure sale of a residential property, the buyer has to submit information to the registry, including the name, telephone number and street address of the person responsible for maintaining the property.

A registry can go a long way to help communities and government officials locate the parties responsible for the condition of foreclosed properties. Poorly maintained homes, whether in predominantly white or predominantly minority neighborhoods, affect us all.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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