Justice Dept. Fights Bias in Lending

Charlie Savage, New York Times, January 14, 2010

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Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general for the department’s [Department of Justice’s] Civil Rights Division, is expected to announce Thursday in New York that the administration is creating a new unit that will focus exclusively on unfair lending practices.

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Mr. Perez plans to formally announce the new unit at the “Wall Street Project” conference organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He characterized the effort as a major turnaround, and criticized the previous administration as failing to scrutinize lending practices amid the subprime mortgage boom.

While past lending discrimination cases primarily focused on “redlining”–a bank’s refusal to lend to qualified borrowers in minority areas–the new push will instead center on a more recent phenomenon critics have called “reverse redlining.”

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“They encourage lenders to make risky loans for reasons such as diversity, and then when lenders have a problem because they made too many risky loans, they condemn them for that,” said Ernest Istook, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

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Under federal civil rights laws, a lending practice is illegal if it has a disparate impact on minority borrowers, and the Obama administration is signaling that it intends to make the enforcing of fair lending laws a signature policy push in 2010.

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