Wells Fargo has agreed to a $175 million settlement with the Justice Department on housing discrimination charges. The settlement reflects an effort on the part of the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division to seek some measure of accountability for the pervasive discrimination against African-American and Hispanic borrowers during the housing bubble. But the numbers involved are a pittance.
An investigation by the department’s civil rights division found that mortgage brokers working with Wells Fargo had charged higher fees and rates to more than 30,000 minority borrowers across the country than they had to white borrowers who posed the same credit risk, according to a complaint filed on Thursday along with the proposed settlement.
Wells Fargo brokers also steered more than 4,000 minority borrowers into costlier subprime mortgages when white borrowers with similar credit risk profiles had received regular loans, a Justice Department complaint found. The deal covers the subprime bubble years of 2004 to 2009.
Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said the practices amounted to a “racial surtax,” adding: “All too frequently, Wells Fargo’s African-American and Latino borrowers had no idea they could have gotten a better deal — no idea that white borrowers with similar credit would pay less.”
$125 million would go toward compensating individual borrowers, with about $15,000 on average for those steered into subprime loans, and $1,000 to $3,500 for those who suffered with increased fees. The other $50 million will fund a program for housing assistance in eight heavy minority areas across the country.
As we have seen with practically every other financial industry settlement over the past several years, Wells Fargo did not have to admit wrongdoing in the case. An admission of guilt would open them up to civil lawsuits from the individuals affected. In fact, all the civil lawsuits put together by states like Illinois and Pennsylvania and the city of Baltimore were folded into this settlement. So that’s a nice cherry on top from DoJ.
The data released with the complaint, however, shows obvious wrongdoing on the part of Wells Fargo. African-American customers paid around $3,000 more in broker fees for the same loan as whites; for Hispanics, around $2,000. And African-American borrowers who could have qualified for prime loans were almost 3 times as likely to get a subprime loan instead.
Wells Fargo rebutted the claims in the case by saying that they reflected poor oversight of independent brokers who made loans on their behalf. But DoJ retained the right to study data on whether the in-house Wells Fargo brokers also discriminated.
People of color have been decimated by the housing crash. They have higher incidences of underwater homes and foreclosures. With foreclosures back on the rise, they again stand at risk of more pain. Small sums of relief for systematic discrimination, just one aspect of the fraud and abuse they suffered, won’t do much to help.
The Obama Administration, through the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department (a bright spot at DoJ), has investigated fair housing discrimination at a number of lenders and won several settlements. Nobody has been prosecuted for the violations.