Kristen Vale Pittman and Andrew Dunn, Charlotte Observer, December 22, 2011
Bank of America Corp. has agreed to pay $335 million to settle allegations that its Countrywide Financial Corp. unit discriminated against minority homebuyers, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday. It’s the largest residential fair-lending settlement in history.
The agreement resolves a civil complaint that the mortgage lender charged black and Hispanic borrowers higher fees and steered them into costlier mortgages than other buyers from 2004 to 2008, a period when the company originated millions of home loans.
It also marks Charlotte-based Bank of America’s latest step to move past the mortgage-related troubles that have pummeled its bottom line and stock price since acquiring Countrywide in 2008.
“We reached this settlement to resolve issues about Countrywide’s alleged historic practices that occurred before Bank of America acquired the company,” bank spokesman Dan Frahm said. “Bank of America’s practices are not at issue.”
In the proposed settlement order, the bank’s Countrywide arm denies a pattern of discrimination.
The Justice Department’s complaint said Countrywide–once one of the nation’s largest single-family mortgage lenders–discriminated against more than 200,000 minority borrowers, charging them higher fees and interest rates than white homebuyers because of their race or national origin, not their creditworthiness.
Countrywide also steered minority buyers into subprime mortgages, which came with higher costs and unpredictable adjustable interest rates and left those borrowers with a higher risk of foreclosure, the department said.
The Justice Department alleged that black or Hispanic borrowers who obtained loans through mortgage brokers were more than twice as likely to be placed in a subprime loan than white borrowers with similar credit.
The settlement Wednesday, which is subject to court approval, provides $335 million in compensation to those borrowers, the Justice Department said. It’s the latest in a string of fair-lending cases in recent months, most involving smaller mortgage companies, and one of Bank of America’s larger payouts related to the mortgage crisis.
“The department’s action against Countrywide makes clear that we will not hesitate to hold financial institutions accountable, including one of the nation’s largest, for lending discrimination,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement. “These institutions should make judgments based on applicants’ creditworthiness, not on the color of their skin.”