After an investigation in New Orleans showed disparities between how foreclosed properties were maintained in white and black neighborhoods, the National Fair Housing Alliance announced Tuesday that it is adding New Orleans to its 2012 federal complaint against the Bank of America.
The alliance and its local partners — including the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center in New Orleans — said they have charted similar disparities among 868 foreclosed properties in 41 cities.
The original complaint was filed two years ago with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and has now been amended five times to add new cities. The work has also drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, said Shanna L. Smith, the alliance’s president, who called it “illegal discrimination on a large scale.”
Bank of America spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens defended the company’s “strong track record and uniform policies for properly maintaining and marketing properties” and questioned the complaint’s research.
“NFHA did not disclose the addresses of the properties where they allege violations, and without addresses we are unable to validate who has responsibility for each property,” she said. “This is just one of many flaws in the way they represent this important issue.”
Bauwens said the bank does not trust the maps — created by the center and other partner agencies — showing that foreclosed houses in African-American neighborhoods consistently rated worse on factors such as lawn and yard upkeep, debris and the condition of windows and doors.
Photos provided by the Housing Alliance show neatly trimmed lawns at foreclosed properties in white neighborhoods while those in black neighborhoods are more likely to have boarded-up windows, overgrown grass and shrubs.
In addition, black and Latino borrowers were far more likely to be steered to sub-prime mortgages and were disproportionately affected by the recent foreclosure crisis, the Housing Alliance claims.
The group warns that those patterns could destabilize neighborhoods in ways familiar to New Orleanians, with vacant properties bringing increased risks of crime, fire and pests.
The Bank of America complaint is part of a larger body of work examining what some groups called the “discriminatory maintenance” of foreclosed properties across the country. The Fair Housing Action Center is also part of a complaint against Safeguard Properties and U.S. Bank.
In Baton Rouge, the group lodged a complaint against Wells Fargo Bank. It was settled last year after the bank promised to step up its maintenance and invest in affected neighborhoods.
The Fair Housing Action Center has contracted with two housing agencies and is preparing to sign a contract with a third to provide housing and foreclosure prevention in Baton Rouge with its $1.4 million share of that $39 million, 45-city settlement.
In New Orleans, the Fair Housing Action Center investigation looked at 26 foreclosed properties, the biggest cluster of which were in eastern New Orleans. Only eight were deemed to be in white neighborhoods based upon the racial-ethnic makeup of the property’s census block group.
Though the totals were relatively small, the results were strikingly consistent, said James Perry, the center’s director, who showed slides of well-maintained homes in eastern New Orleans next to what he called “corporate blight” — ill-kept, vacant Bank of America homes.
Then he showed a slide of an immaculately kept foreclosed home in a white neighborhood.
“No overgrown plants. No trash,” he said. “It looks like it’s in move-in condition. Why are these properties not maintained in the same way when they’re in African American neighborhoods?”