The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Senate rolls back rules meant to root out discrimination by mortgage lenders

Sold signs are displayed in front of a new development in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. (Seth Wenig/AP)

The Senate on Wednesday passed a sweeping bill to weaken the government’s ability to enforce fair-lending requirements, making it easier for community banks to hide discrimination against minority mortgage applicants and harder for regulators to root out predatory lenders.

The bill rolls back banking rules passed after the 2008 financial crisis, including a little-known part of the Dodd-Frank Act that required banks and credit unions to report more detailed lending data so abuses could be spotted.

The bipartisan plan, the most significant revision of banking rules in the decade since the Great Recession, would exempt 85 percent of banks and credit unions from the new requirement, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau analysis of 2013 data.

The mortgage industry says the expanded data requirements are onerous and costly, especially for small lenders. But civil rights and consumer advocates say the information is critical to identifying troubling patterns that warrant further investigation by regulators.

“The data operates as a canary in the coal mine, functioning as a check on banks’ practices,” said Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “The loss of that sunlight allows discrimination to proliferate undetected.”

For decades, banks have been required under the 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to report borrowers' race, ethnicity and Zip code so officials could tell whether lenders were serving the communities in which they are located and identify racist lending practices such as redlining.

But discriminatory practices continued, with the financial industry disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic borrowers with subprime mortgages loaded with high fees and adjustable interest rates that skyrocketed after the stock market crashed in 2008.

“The experience of the financial crisis taught us that we really need to know more about the loan terms and conditions, not just a borrower’s race,” said Josh Silver, senior adviser at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Lenders were supposed to start gathering extra information about borrowers’ ages and credit scores, as well as interest rates and other loan-pricing features in January.

Congress had charged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent watchdog agency formed after the financial crisis, with collecting, analyzing and publishing the data. But White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, named the CFPB's acting director last November, said the agency plans to reconsider the new requirements, and that banks would not be penalized for data collection errors in 2018. He also stripped the bureau's fair-lending office of its enforcement powers.

The Senate bill repeals many of the new reporting requirements, exempting small lenders making 500 or fewer mortgages a year from the expanded data disclosure.

“Banks say they don’t treat borrowers differently, but the data shows a different story,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) on the Senate floor last Thursday. “Redlining remains a major problem for communities of color.”

February report by the Center for Investigative Reporting showed that redlining persists in 61 metro areas — from Detroit and Philadelphia to Little Rock and Tacoma, Wash. — even when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood, according to its analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records.

Nevada saw the highest foreclosure rate for 62 straight months during the Great Recession, especially in minority communities, said Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general. More than 219,000 families lost their homes. Whole neighborhoods were hollowed out — with boarded-up homes, for-sale signs and empty lots dotting Las Vegas and Reno, she said.

“By stripping away important regulations to hold banks accountable, we are risking another financial crisis that is rooted in unfair lending practices,” Cortez Masto said in a statement Wednesday night.

Twelve of her Democratic colleagues co-sponsored the bill. Sponsors of the financial regulation rollbacks include Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former fair-housing lawyer. The bill’s supporters say they don’t think it would widen the door for discriminatory lending, arguing that mortgage data such as race and gender collected before Dodd-Frank would still be gathered.

The mortgage industry says the proposed deregulation would cut costs and help smaller community banks remain competitive, enabling them to make even more loans. The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that expanded data would still be collected on 95 percent of loans.

“If you want to provide some regulatory relief, it makes sense to do it for these institutions that aren’t making a lot of loans,” said Mike Fratantoni, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. “You’re not losing much in terms of your visibility into trends in the market.”

The problem with the former reporting requirements, advocates say, is that banks often blamed racial lending discrepancies on borrowers’ credit scores or other characteristics that were impossible to verify without additional reported data that lenders already collected as part of the mortgage application and underwriting process.

The rollback in reporting requirements would potentially hurt not only minority borrowers but also older applicants, as well as those living in rural communities and small towns that are disproportionately served by community banks, advocates say.

“Lending discrimination is occurring in real time, and we have to have the tools to be able to address it,” said Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division during the Obama administration and now is the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It’s not just happening in the context of big banks, it’s also happening in community banks and credit unions.”