Suit Alleges Trusted Blacks Drew Minorities to High-Rate Loans

Mary Kane, Washington Independent, Sept. 17, 2009

As the housing market began booming in the mid-2000s, Wells Fargo & Co. teamed up with prominent African American commentator and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and financial author Kelvin Boston, the host of “Moneywise,” a multicultural financial affairs show, to host something called “Wealth Building” seminars in black neighborhoods.

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The seminars in some cities drew standing room only crowds, with numerous Wells Fargo representatives on hand, seated at carrels to meet one-on-one with potential borrowers who lined up after the speeches, which were usually held in hotels. The free, day-long events were heavily advertised in the black media, and launched in eight cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Richmond, Va., and San Francisco.

But what appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth was actually just the opposite, according to a little-noticed explanation of the “Wealth Building” seminar strategy, contained in a lawsuit recently filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Wells’ plan for the seminars all along was to target black borrowers for higher-cost subprime mortgages, not for wealth-building, the suit charged. And the seminars were a part of the bank’s overall illegal and discriminatory practice of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier and more expensive loans, the suit said.

“According to a former Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employee, one of these ‘Wealth Building’ seminars held in Maryland was planned for an audience that would be virtually all African American,” the suit said. “The plan for the seminar was for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employees to talk about subprime mortgages, although they were directed by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage to use the term ‘alternative lending’ when marketing these products.”

The former employee, who is white, was scheduled to speak at the seminar, but was told by a manager that she was “too white,” and that only black employees could make presentations, the suit said.

Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and a recipient of $25 billion in government bailout money, has denied all the charges in the Illinois suit, as well as other allegations of unfair lending. The bank did not respond to requests for comment on the seminars. Smiley, an author and advocate who hosts the late night talk show, “Tavis Smiley,” and who organizes the State of the Black Union symposiums each year, also declined comment.

Corbett pointed out that Wells’ outreach to the minority community through the seminars wasn’t unusual. Lenders sponsoring financial literacy sessions, holding wealth building seminars, or contributing to local minority advocacy organizations, became a common marketing strategy as the subprime market grew. Some of the efforts were genuine, aimed at finding new customers in minority neighborhoods once deprived of credit. But sometimes they were used instead as a cover to push predatory loans, Corbett said.

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Corbett said that after the speakers finished, bank employees and other financial experts were offering credit checks, real estate counseling, and other kinds of assistance. Corbett said he also believes some employees were signing up people for loan pre-approvals, on the spot, though he couldn’t be sure of what kind of loans they were. He said attendees lined up to talk to the Wells employees in both events. “If they weren’t actually selling loans, they were setting up borrowers for the kill,” Corbett said.

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In 2005, before the subprime crisis, Boston said, the main worry in the black community over mortgage lending was the banks were lagging behind in their lending to minority neighborhoods. He said expressed his concerns about this to Wells Fargo. Smiley, he said, also later raised questions about subprime lending tactics with the bank. “Tavis definitely had some dealings with them on this issue,” Boston said.

Nonetheless, in hindsight and with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, Boston said he has second thoughts about participating in the seminars.

“Were we probably used? We probably were,” he said. “If I had the chance to do it over again, would I do it in a different manner? Probably.”

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The Illinois lawsuit against Wells is one of many such actions winding their way through the court system around the country, offering more details of alleged discriminatory tactics by lenders during the height of the subprime boom. As TWI reported last week, housing advocates call these lawsuits the “smoking guns” of the housing crisis, providing what they see as proof that lenders deliberately targeted minorities for high-rate and risky subprime mortgages, while white borrowers with similar incomes and credit scores received lower-cost loans.

In a city of Baltimore lawsuit against Wells, former employees charged that Wells Fargo loan officers referred to minority borrowers as “mud people” and called subprime mortgages “ghetto loans.” But some prominent black bloggers find the “wealth building” seminars just as egregious, and question why Smiley, Boston, and anyone else who participated in them hasn’t been called on further to account for their actions.

“If Tavis Smiley was white, Wells Fargo and ‘Ghetto Loans’ would be front page news,” wrote Genma Stringer Holmes, a Nashville, Tenn., business owner and blogger who has blasted out several posts on the seminars.

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