Wells Fargo, NAACP open financial literacy center

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The Washington Post
By: Danielle Douglas
April 4, 2011

The NAACP and Wells Fargo opened a financial literacy center in the District on Monday, a project that stemmed from the settlement of a lawsuit that accused the lending giant of steering black borrowers into subprime mortgages.

The NAACP withdrew its lawsuit last April, after the bank agreed to help develop programs to improve African Americans' access to high-quality loans and protect minorities against predatory loans. The San Francisco-based Wells Fargo will also donate $2.5 million annually for the next five years to fund the NAACP Financial Freedom Center in the District and similar initiatives.

"Wells Fargo has stepped forward and said, 'We can go further, frankly, than any court can force us to go,' " Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and chief executive, said at the opening ceremony. "We intend to make history together, ensuring that this country . . . moves beyond the century of injustice in the mortgage industry."

Other major lenders could follow suit within weeks, Jealous said.

The center, which has offices in the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest Washington, will be the headquarters and proving ground for a national campaign focused on financial literacy and improving the strained relationship between lenders and minorities.

In the settlement, Wells Fargo did not admit to preying on minorities, but a senior bank executive acknowledged that the lending industry has engaged in practices that have been detrimental to minority communities.

"The mortgage industry, as a whole, probably did not behave very well, and certainly was a contributor to the recession and the loss of many homes," said Jon R. Campbell, executive vice president of social responsibility at Wells Fargo. "We want to rebuild trust that Wells Fargo is doing everything possible to keep people who can afford their homes to stay in them."

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Federal Reserve, about 55 percent of the mortgages extended to blacks were subprime. Separate data from the agency show that financial institutions made 1.1. million subprime loans from 2004 to 2007, about 13 percent of the national total.

A major portion of the loans offered to blacks ended in foreclosure, which the lenders often initiated using shoddy or fraudulent paperwork, critics said.

Consumer advocates and civil rights groups said that lenders encouraged loan officers to sell mortgages with higher interest rates and fees than warranted, while slapping borrowers who paid off their loans early with hefty penalties. During the boom, lenders often made money by packaging the loans into securities and selling them to investors around the world.

With about $1.3 trillion in assets, Wells Fargo said it is the largest mortgage lender to African Americans, to whom the bank made more than 40,000 home loans in 2009, the most recent data available. Wells Fargo would not disclose what percentage of those loans were subprime. The bank said the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data doesn't require lenders to report that information.

Wells Fargo says it will supply the NAACP with aggregated data the bank uses to originate mortgages. It will also team with community nonprofit groups to offer workshops on such matters as home preservation, money management and credit repair across the country.

Wells Fargo became the first bank to endorse nine principles devised by the NAACP to encourage transparency and equity, including monitoring policies for their racial effects and approving borrowers for loans only if they have the ability to repay at the time of origination.

"We got a lot of people into their homes, but unfortunately we have a lot of people leaving their homes," Campbell said at the unveiling of the center.

Wells Fargo, he said, has enacted a number of measures in the past 18 months, including adding more than 10,000 home-preservation specialists, assigning an independent group to review foreclosure decisions before initiation and ensuring that at least two people review denied modifications. The bank said it has modified more than 649,000 mortgages so far and forgiven $3.8 billion in principal.

Wells Fargo is one of 15 lenders, including HSBC and JPMorgan Chase, that the NAACP has sued since 2007, when the first wave of foreclosures hit subprime borrowers. The civil rights group said it was never seeking monetary damages but rather a change in mortgage lending behavior. Jealous would not disclose the names of institutions that were close to settling.

douglasd@washpost.com

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