Redlining is Alive and Well—and Evolving

Nine recent, high-profile cases show the discriminatory practice of redlining is not a thing of the past. It’s even spread to your Facebook account.

Image REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

“Redlining,” the practice of banks and real estate agents steering black and Latino families away from predominantly white neighborhoods, is often spoken of in the past tense. We tend to think of it as a vestige of Jim Crow, of a thankfully bygone era when people wore racism on their sleeves and wove it into neighborhood engineering without repercussion.

Some recent cases, however, show that not only is redlining alive today, but that it’s also evolved in many cases into racist practices that aren’t as detectable as they were during Jim Crow.

Redlining can determine where people of color are able to live or even whether they can have pizza delivered to them. My colleague Laura Bliss has pointed to maps of Baltimore that show redlining effects lingering in the city today. The federal government has been ramping up its investigations of housing discrimination through its Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, a partnership between the U.S. Justice Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The task force says you can count on more redlining cases coming up for investigation, which is starting to freak out some in the housing finance sector.

Cities have been trying to head off the nefarious housing practices and effects, too, with a number filing suits against banks and companies suspected of a variety of steering practices. One common form of this is predatory lending, where banks reserve high-interest loans almost exclusively for people of color, what’s sometimes called “reverse redlining.” Another comes in the form of a company’s refusal to deliver services, like utilities, to neighborhoods with large black and Latino populations.

Below are nine cases that demonstrate what we’re talking about here.

The busted:

  1. On September 24, the U.S. Justice Department announced a settlement with Hudson City Savings Bank for close to $33 million after an investigation found that it was avoiding doing mortgage business with African Americans and Latinos between 2009 and 2013. The Justice Department calls it the “largest residential mortgage redlining settlement in its history.” As U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman explained to Emily Badger for The Washington Post, “[i]f you lived in a majority-black or Hispanic neighborhood and you wanted to apply for a mortgage, Hudson City Savings Bank was not the place to go.” The bank serviced one of the largest housing markets in the nation, covering mortgages throughout New Jersey, New York, and even Philadelphia. But the bank went out of its way not to set up any branches in minority neighborhoods. As part of the settlement, Hudson City will have to open two full-service branches in non-white communities.
  1. On September 10, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman settled with Evans Bank for $825,000 after discovering that the bank erased black neighborhoods from maps used for determining mortgage lending. According to Schneiderman, of the over 1,100 mortgage applications the bank received between 2009 and 2012, only four were from African Americans. The Buffalo News reports that other banks in the area could be flagged next for redlining.
(New York Attorney General Office)
  1. In May, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $200 million settlement with Associated Bank over redlining in Chicago and Milwaukee. The HUD complaint said that the bank denied mortgage loans to black and Latino applicants between 2008 and 2010. As in the Hudson City case, Associated Bank will have to open new branches in predominantly black and brown communities

The accused:

  1. Last year, the city of Miami brought lawsuits against Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup, alleging that the banks were steering black and Latino applicants towards high-interest, “predatory” loans. A federal judge struck those lawsuits down, saying the city lacked standing. A federal appeals reversed that decision, though, on September 2, saying that banks could have foreseen the “attendant harm” that resulted from the predatory lending when they resulted in large numbers of foreclosures throughout the city.
  2. Los Angeles filed lawsuits against four banks last year—J. P. Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup—accusing them of both traditional redlining (denying loans to people of color), and also the “reverse redlining” of making predatory loans rain on black and brown communities. The city recently dropped the J. P. Morgan suit. The suits against Bank of America and Wells Fargo are on appeal, while the Citigroup case goes to trial next year. The city says these banks have been engaging in these practices since 2004. Further up the coast, the city of Oakland has also sued Wells Fargo, accusing it of reverse redlining as well.

    (LaDale Winling, www.urbanoasis.org)
  3. On September 9, the National Fair Housing Alliance filed a discrimination complaint against RE/MAX real estate agents in Jackson, Mississippi. The Alliance sent fake couples out to shop for homes and found that the white testers were sent to predominantly white neighborhoods to view homes while black testers were rarely called out to view homes at all. A September 15 editorial in the The New York Times said the Alliance’s findings are indicative of a history of discrimination that has “taken an enormous toll on black wealth.”

​​The next generation:

  1. The mayors of Jersey City and Newark are concerned that poor, minority neighborhoods haven’t been getting their share of fiber-optic quality broadband internet access. Verizon has a contract with the state of New Jersey to deliver this service to the cities. However, as Russell Brandom reports at The Verge, extraordinarily large numbers of households, mostly renters, in Newark and Jersey City have been waiving off rights to the fiber optic service. The mayors are now looking into whether Verizon might be deliberately contributing to the digital divide in the state. Seth Hahn of the Communication Workers of America union told Brandom that a lot of landlords were waived out of the service without their knowledge. Some have been calling it “FioS redlining”—a term that an Urban League director took issue with, claiming that it falsely conflates the Verizon issue with a real history of housing discrimination. It should be noted that Urban League collects healthy sums of funding from Verizon. Here’s a graph Brandom created that illustrates the disparities:
    (The Verge, Russell Brandom)

  2. You might want to start randomly friending some rich trust fund dudes on Facebook. It just might help you get a mortgage loan, especially if you run with a network of modestly compensated real-life friends. As Susie Cagle reported for Pacific Standard last month, a company recently secured a patent that would allow banks to assess a person’s creditworthiness by scanning an applicant’s Facebook friends. If you’re perpetually broke, and you find yourself suddenly getting unfriended by a bunch of loved ones and college buddies, it could be that they’re trying to buy a house, and you are a blotch on their Facebook credit. Cagle wryly refers to this as potential “Facebook redlining.” Writing about it for The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer detailed a bunch of legal and practical obstacles banks would encounter if they used this Facebook-based system.

Still, if this ends up not flying, there’s no reason to think that banks won’t find some other application to filter out undesirable borrowers. After all, the history of discrimination in the U.S. is one of metamorphosis.

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