Los Angeles sues Wells Fargo and Citigroup, says mortgage discrimination led to foreclosures

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Los Angeles city attorney sued Wells Fargo and Citigroup on Thursday, alleging the companies engaged in mortgage discrimination that led to a wave of foreclosures in minority communities during the housing crash.

The twin lawsuits, filed in federal court, are the latest fallout from the 2008 collapse of the subprime mortgage industry, which sparked a string of actions against various lenders by federal agencies and city governments.

The city attorney’s suits allege a “continuing pattern of discriminatory mortgage lending practices” in Los Angeles that violate the federal Fair Housing Act. They claim Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup Inc. at first refused to grant mortgages in minority neighbourhoods — a practice known as redlining — and later targeted black and Hispanic neighbourhoods for predatory loans, known as reverse redlining.

Wells Fargo and Citigroup both said the suits are meritless.

“We are disappointed that the LA attorney does not recognize our deep commitment to fair lending,” a Citigroup statement said.

The lawsuits contend that “vulnerable, underserved borrowers” denied by years of redlining jumped at the chance to obtain subprime home loans they couldn’t afford, then were hit by a swarm of foreclosures when the housing bubble burst and they were denied refinancing.

“Since 2008, banks have foreclosed on approximately 1.7 million homes in California, and Wells Fargo is responsible for nearly one in five of these foreclosures,” the lawsuit against Wells Fargo says.

A loan in a predominantly minority neighbourhood of Los Angeles is nearly five more times more likely to result in foreclosure that one in a predominantly white neighbourhood, the suit claims.

“These foreclosures often occur when a minority borrower who previously received a predatory loan sought to refinance the loan, only to discover that Wells Fargo refused to extend credit at all, or on equal terms as when refinancing similar loans issued to white borrowers,” it says.

The foreclosures caused property values to tumble, costing the city tax revenue, and leaving it holding the bag for the cost of cleaning up and policing vacant properties, the lawsuit claims.

Citigroup said it “considers each applicant by the same objective criteria, which are blind to race, ethnicity, gender and any other prohibited basis,” the bank said. “Using these objective criteria allows us to lend on terms that are consistent with the risk profile of each borrower and gives millions of qualifying consumers the opportunity to own a home.”

“Wells Fargo has been a part of Southern California for over a century and we are proud of our record as a fair and responsible lender,” that bank said in a statement, adding that the allegations “do not in any way reflect our values as a company.”

Both lawsuits seek unspecified reparations and damages. However, they cite a report by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the California Reinvestment Coalition that estimated the mortgage crisis resulted in more than 200,000 foreclosures from 2008 to 2012, with $481 million in lost property tax revenue to the city, and $1.2 billion in Los Angeles for “increased costs of safety inspections, police and fire calls, trash removal and property maintenance.”

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office has previously gone after other mortgage lenders in state court, blaming them for urban blight sparked by the housing market collapse.

Ongoing lawsuits filed against Deutsche Bank AG in 2011 and US Bancorp last year contend that the lenders destroyed neighbourhoods by wrongly kicking people out of homes and leaving hundreds of properties to become trash-strewn crime magnets.

Bank officials said that they are not responsible for the decline.

The banks have been hit by other mortgage-related lawsuits in recent years. Last month, Wells Fargo disclosed that it will pay $335 million to resolve claims that it misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about risky mortgage securities before the housing market collapsed.

In 2011, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $85 million to settle civil charges that it falsified loan documents and pushed borrowers toward subprime mortgages with higher interest rates during the housing boom. It was the largest penalty ever imposed by the Federal Reserve in a consumer-enforcement case.

Last year, Wells Fargo and Citigroup were among banks that reached a $25 billion settlement with attorneys general in 49 states over alleged widespread mortgage abuses. The banks did not admit or deny guilt in that settlement, which did not protect them from other litigation.

New York’s state attorney general announced in October that he was suing Wells Fargo to force compliance with terms of the settlement.