Jalen Bushnell was watching television on his family’s red leather sofa when he heard thumping noises mixed with hurried footsteps and then a crashing bang.
After Bushnell ran upstairs to his mother’s bedroom to investigate, he found that someone had smashed a hole about the size of a basketball through the wall of his family’s home — again.
It was the second time in six months that trespassers in the vacant townhouse next to the Bushnells had blown through a shared wall to break into the family’s Maryland home.
“Now if I hear a noise or see something, I’m looking through the windows and checking,” said Bushnell, 24.
The Bushnells said they thought things would get better when a bank took ownership of the vacant home, but problems persisted for years, with rats, weeds and trespassers plaguing the property next to them in Prince George’s County, Md.
“It’s stressful,” said his mother, Chevelle Bushnell, 54, who was sitting next to her son and monitoring video from the family’s live home security system. “You get to the point where you’re barricading yourself in the house because you have to protect what you have.”
The Bushnells are part of a lawsuit in federal court against Bank of America asserting that the company violated the Fair Housing Act by failing to maintain its foreclosed properties in black and Latino communities to the same standards as in white communities. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, extends its claims across more than 20 states and is part of a string of legal and administrative actions that fair-housing advocates have taken nationwide against major financial institutions — including Deutsche Bank, U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo and Fannie Mae — to reduce blight in minority neighborhoods.
The lawsuits reflect the latest fallout from the foreclosure crisis, pitting frustrated residents and fair-housing advocates against banks that argue they’re being unfairly blamed for neighborhood ills that existed long before the banks took ownership of homes that went underwater — a situation in which the loan principal is more than the market value of the home.
“The unequal conditions pervading many metropolitan areas are a lamentable reality, but a longstanding one — not the result of how Bank of America manages ‘curb appeal’ in its post-foreclosure property maintenance,” lawyers for the company wrote last month in a request to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance.
A company called Safeguard, which manages properties for Bank of America, is also named in the lawsuit and has called the claims “ill-conceived and disingenuous.”
But the failure of lenders to take care of their properties in certain neighborhoods disproportionately burdens families like the Bushnells through increased crime, reduced property values, and “deteriorating and dilapidated living conditions,” the alliance asserts in court filings.
Chevelle Bushnell, an office manager for a construction company, said she lived peacefully in her townhouse after buying it 28 years ago. But when the neighbors walked away from their property about 11 years ago, she became the victim of multiple break-ins as trespassers found their way into the vacant property.
“Now that it has happened so many times, you live day-to-day wondering if someone is going to break into your house even if you try to secure it,” Bushnell said.
She and her son said they’ve lost track of how many times they’ve called police, but she doesn’t want to leave the home where she raised her children and which she recently remodeled and decorated with her children’s awards and trophies.
“Bank of America and Safeguard’s deplorable and intentional inaction left innocent homeowners exposed to numerous health hazards and personal risks,” Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a statement. “No one should have to live like this due to Bank of America’s refusal to maintain its own properties.”
The lawsuit against Bank of America is based on an eight-year investigation of more than 1,600 middle-class homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and in communities of color, according to the alliance.
As was done for lawsuits filed against other financial institutions, investigators with fair-housing groups across the country regularly visited and photographed bank-owned homes, checking for “deficiencies” such as trash, overgrown yards, unsecured doors and other signs of neglect.
Photos included in the lawsuit showed that bank-owned homes in mostly white neighborhoods were well maintained, with minor flaws such as missing “for sale” signs and piled-up mail.
In contrast, photos of bank-owned homes in majority Latino and African American communities included a graffiti-covered shed, an unfenced pool filled with green, stagnant water and numerous images of lawns covered in chest-high weeds ringed by broken fences.
Bank of America and Safeguard deny the claims of willful neglect and have questioned the data the housing alliance and its partners cite.
“Safeguard neither condones nor tolerates acts of discrimination or business practices that would unfairly target or neglect certain neighborhoods based on location and demographics,” the company said in a statement in May when the lawsuit was filed. “Safeguard has a proven track record of working with our clients, communities, and civic leaders throughout the country to combat blight brought on by the housing crisis.”
Bank of America has said the fair-housing organization “faulted the bank for properties that other entities had the responsibility to maintain and market, expressly declined to consider properties under repair, and included properties the bank had agreed to donate to local groups.” The bank also said the alliance never contacted it concerning specific properties to “ensure the accuracy of their information.”
Bank of America’s request that the court dismiss the lawsuit leans on the outcome of a similar administrative complaint the alliance filed against U.S. Bank to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal housing agency “identified a bevy of fundamental flaws” in the complaint against U.S. Bank, saying the alliance did not have enough facts to support its discrimination claim. The federal agency said the inspection criteria the housing alliance used were inconsistent and said the alliance wrongly characterized items such as boarded-up windows, which are required by law, as maintenance flaws.
Bank of America claimed the alliance is now shopping its allegations in court because its complaints to HUD have been unsuccessful.
Others in the financial services industry have questioned the alliance’s investigations, saying advocates are faulting banks for damage that occurred before they took ownership of homes or have misidentified owners of the properties.
“And they often fail to accept reasonable expectations for how a property should be maintained in the context of the surrounding properties,” said Andy Sandler, chairman of Temerity Capital Partners, who used to represent banks involved in lawsuits similar to what Bank of America is facing.
But the alliance’s legal strategy has yielded wins.
In 2013, Wells Fargo settled similar allegations of discrimination. Wells Fargo did not admit wrongdoing, but it agreed to spend $42 million on property rehabilitation and neighborhood stabilization projects in 19 metropolitan areas that included the District and Prince George’s County.
And the alliance has a similar lawsuit pending in federal court against Fannie Mae in California. The judge in the case has given the alliance more time to refile its complaint to show “discriminatory intent” rather than mere “disparate treatment.”
Heather Mullins Crislip, president and CEO of Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, said the homes at the center of the fair-housing lawsuits are not properties where entire neighborhoods are in decline. Rather, the bank-owned homes that are in disrepair are eyesores amid well-maintained properties where owners take pride in their investments.
“The foreclosed properties do stand out,” Crislip said. “We’re talking about trash, broken windows, unsecured doors and things that should be the bare minimum that any owner would take care of.”
Wanda Onafuwa, who is suing Bank of America along with the Bushnells, said she has spent thousands of dollars and many hours trying to protect herself and her home after the house next door became vacant in 2016.
She contends that problems with the house that Bank of America once owned have caused her basement to flood, generated a neighborhood rat infestation and prompted safety concerns when a squatter would not leave the property in her Baltimore City neighborhood of Tremont.
“The toll is unbelievable,” Onafuwa said of the anxiety and frustration she has experienced. “I’ve had nights when I couldn’t sleep because I’m worried about rodents.”
Bank of America has said in court filings that the claims Onafuwa and the Bushnells have brought should be dismissed because some of the damage they cited occurred before the company took ownership of the neighboring properties.
Onafuwa has lived in her home since 1988 and said the tree-lined neighborhood is well-kept by its working-class families. But, she said, the empty home on her street remained an eyesore and nuisance for two years despite what she said were her numerous calls to Safeguard and Bank of America. The empty home was sold in March.
“I wish I could have picked up my house and move it somewhere else,” Onafuwa said. “It was horrendous.”