Chevelle Bushnell has written to her homeowners association about the trash, debris and overgrown shrubbery at the vacant townhouse next door to her home in District Heights, Md.  She’s called police repeatedly to report break-ins, including one in which thieves cut through the wall of the vacant townhouse to get inside her home.

“Pretty much I have had to secure my house with cameras,” said Bushnell, who has lived in the Prince George’s County community for 26 years. “They need to fix this house and sell it. I am sure there are people interested.”

The vacant townhouse, in a predominantly African American neighborhood and county, is an example of how banks fail to secure and maintain foreclosed homes in black and Latino neighborhoods, fair housing advocates say.

The home is featured in a discrimination complaint filed Wednesday with the Department of Housing and Urban Development against Bank of America, alleging that the bank has neglected foreclosed homes it owns in minority neighborhoods and has done a better job of maintaining those in white communities.

The National Fair Housing Alliance filed new evidence in an existing federal Fair Housing Act complaint against the bank, after taking an in-depth look at neighborhoods in 30 metropolitan areas across the country, including Prince George’s. The group said it found a “continued failure by Bank of America” to conduct simple maintenance such grass mowing and securing of doors and windows in minority neighborhoods.

Residents and civil rights groups say failure to maintain foreclosed properties contributes to blight and decay and presents safety problems in affected neighborhoods. Some residents feel unsafe walking on streets with boarded-up homes and homes that have broken windows and unsecured doors. The blight also hurts property values of the other homes.

“In communities of color, Bank of America simply ignores the routine basic maintenance,” said Shanna L. Smith, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “It is amazing how nice the homes are in the neighborhood, and then you come right up to this eyesore that is a Bank of America foreclosure.”

The NFHA’s complaint is based on an investigation of 1,267  foreclosed Bank of America properties in working- and middle-class neighborhoods across the country. The complaint is similar to those that civil rights advocates have made against other big banks and housing finance giant Fannie Mae.

“All these banks say they have procedures, but you can look at our photographs and see that that’s an absolute lie,” Smith said. “They simply refuse to maintain their foreclosures in communities of color.”

Bank of America, in a statement, questioned the credibility of the claims, saying that previous reports by the NFHA had serious flaws in methodology.

“Bank of America has a strong track record and uniform policies for properly maintaining and marketing properties, yet NFHA has continuously presented inaccurate and misleading information as ‘research’ while, at the same time, seeking significant money from our company.”

Bank of America made these criticisms of the NFHA’s methodology:

For example, the 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. And yet, through multiple amended complaints, NFHA has never contacted the bank about specific properties. Had they reached out to us, we would have helped them ensure the accuracy of their information.
The disposition of a property is also dependent upon the requirements of the mortgage investor holding the property. For example, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac immediately accept the foreclosed property and take over the maintenance and marketing of it. On the other hand, [Federal Housing Administration]/HUD properties must be put into “conveyance condition” prior to being turned over to the government agency for marketing. Repairs can be extensive, expensive and time-consuming, and vandalism sometimes sets the project back and can greatly extend the time leading to conveyance.
The fact is Bank of America applies neutral and uniform practices to the management of vacant bank-owned properties across the country, regardless of the demographic makeup of their location. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said the agency is considering several discrimination complaints, including the one against Bank of America. He said the agency has to determine the nature of the complaint, and if it finds substantial evidence supporting the case, it can refer the case to the Justice Department.

“We look at these complaints very seriously,” he said.

The agency recently made a “no cause” determination in a complaint against U.S. Bank, but HUD is still considering some of the issues NFHA raised about the HUD decision. HUD also reached agreements with Wells Fargo three years ago on similar complaints.

NFHA says its investigation found that across the country, foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods had significantly fewer problems. Homes in minority communities were twice as likely to have broken, boarded-up or unsecured windows, and they were more than twice as likely to have trash or debris on the property.

In Prince George’s, the nation’s highest-income majority-black county, nearly two-thirds of the foreclosed homes in minority neighborhoods had “substantial amounts of trash” on the premises; more than half of the homes had overgrown grass or accumulated leaves; and one-third of the homes had unsecured or broken doors. None of the homes in white neighborhoods had those problems, according to the complaint.

A NFHA photo of a home in District Heights shows weeds and vines growing over the front of the property and the steps of the house covered with grass and weeds. A photo of a home in Temple Hills shows standing water and trash in the yard, which advocates say creates a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a health hazard for the neighborhood.

Bushnell, who lives in a working-class community of 340 townhouses, said some improvements had been made to the foreclosed home next door, including the replacement of broken windows, but nothing has happened since then.

“I feel like it is not a priority for them,” she said.

A spike in foreclosed homes has been a threat to community development efforts in Prince George’s since the housing crisis. According to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, in the second quarter of 2016, there were 2,182 foreclosure events in Prince George’s; that number includes notices of default, notices of sale and lender purchases. The county has the highest foreclosure rate in the Washington region.

The NFHA action Wednesday was an amendment to an original complaint, after investigating an additional 399 Bank of America foreclosures.

“Bank of America’s deliberate neglect of its foreclosures in communities of color creates financial concerns as well as health and safety risks for people living near poorly‐maintained foreclosed homes,” Smith said. “Too many of these foreclosures have overgrown weeds, unsecured doors or windows, and debris left in the yard, creating perfect breeding grounds for rats, mice, snakes, and mosquitoes.”