FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 20, 2022
Media Contact: IWoodruff@NationalFairHousing.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Fair Housing Alliance and 19 other fair housing groups have asked a federal judge to deny attempts by Bank of America and its property maintenance vendor, Safeguard Properties Management, to throw out a lawsuit regarding their property maintenance and marketing practices that the groups consider racially discriminatory.
Poorly maintained, seemingly abandoned bank-owned homes become prime targets for vandals and decrease curb appeal for prospective owner-occupant buyers; this leads to a decline in home values for African American and Latino families who live next door or nearby, denying opportunities for neighborhood stabilization and economic recovery after the foreclosure crisis and further deepening the racial wealth gap and inequality in America.
“We are dismayed that while other national banks, such as Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo, and Freddie Mac, have chosen to collaborate with us to remedy racial disparities in maintenance and marketing of bank-owned homes, Bank of America has instead chosen contentious litigation over problem solving – at odds with the Bank’s previously stated commitment to advancing racial justice,” said Lisa Rice, President and CEO of NFHA. “The arguments Bank of America and Safeguard now advance threaten to undermine decades of anti-discrimination law and thwart fair housing enforcement efforts in a variety of contexts. NFHA and our co-plaintiffs hope that the court will reject the defendants’ dangerous arguments and allow this case to proceed to trial, so that defendants’ discriminatory and harmful maintenance practices can be stopped.”
The lawsuit alleges that, for over a decade, the bank and its maintenance vendor have failed to maintain Bank of America-owned properties in predominantly African American, Latino, and other minority neighborhoods to the same level to which they maintain properties in predominantly White neighborhoods. As part of the underlying lawsuit, NFHA and the 19 other fair housing groups conducted an investigation which found that properties in minority neighborhoods were more than three times as likely as those in White neighborhoods to have 11 or more exterior maintenance or marketing deficiencies.
Bank of America and Safeguard have opted for a protracted legal battle and also failed to make meaningful change to their policies, the groups say. The bank’s most recent filings ask the U.S. District Court in Baltimore to prevent the plaintiffs’ claims from reaching a jury.
In response, on July 15, NFHA and its legal counsel filed an 80-page brief asking the court to uphold established principles of fair housing enforcement and describing the wealth of evidence gathered in the litigation demonstrating Bank of America’s and Safeguard’s policies and practices that led to stark racial disparities in maintenance and marketing of bank-owned properties. The brief also explains how this racial disparity cannot be explained by the numerous non-racial factors the defendants have posited (e.g., crime rates, housing values, or poverty levels).
NFHA and the other 19 fair housing groups are joined in the lawsuit by Ms. Wanda Onafuwa of Baltimore and Ms. Chevelle Bushnell and her son, Jalen Bushnell, of District Heights, Md. Both families say their townhomes suffered serious physical damage because of poor maintenance of nearby Bank of America-owned homes. They also experienced emotional harm from living next to unsecured, unmaintained, vacant homes that were at times inhabited by squatters and other unauthorized persons.
The plaintiffs are represented by Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, a Baltimore-based law firm.
Bank of America is the owner of record on foreclosed properties, and thus is responsible for their maintenance. As a part of the case, the NFHA legal team submitted more than 30,000 photos documenting the exterior maintenance conditions of more than 1,400 Bank of America-owned homes in working- and middle-class White, African American, and Latino neighborhoods. They showed evidence of consistently poor exterior maintenance in the neighborhoods of color, including overgrown grass and weeds, unsecured doors and windows, damaged steps and handrails, accumulated trash and debris, graffiti, and even dead animals decaying in yards. By contrast, Bank of America-owned homes in predominantly White working- and middle-class neighborhoods are far more likely to have the lawns mowed and edged regularly, invasive weeds and vines removed, windows and doors secured or repaired, debris and trash removed, leaves raked, and graffiti erased from the property, the lawsuit alleges.
It has been more than a decade since NFHA first called on Bank of America to expend the same care and attention on homes in majority-minority neighborhoods that it does in communities where most residents are White. NFHA first notified Bank of America of maintenance problems that appeared to violate the Fair Housing Act in June 2009. When these discussions did not yield meaningful results, NFHA and its partners began a multi-year, multi-city systemic investigation. The results of that investigation became evidence in the lawsuit against Bank of America.
Bank of America has been put on notice multiple times since 2009, including through the filing of a HUD housing discrimination complaint against it and publication of three reports documenting the nationwide problem of poor maintenance of bank-owned homes in communities of color. The plaintiffs hope to finally put an end to this discrimination through the current lawsuit.
Click here for more background on the case. Click here to read NFHA’s 2014 report outlining how financial institutions discriminate in the treatment of foreclosed homes. NFHA is pursuing litigation against Deutsche Bank, et al. involving similar allegations of discriminatory REO maintenance and marketing, with info available here.
The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) is the country’s only national civil rights organization dedicated solely to eliminating all forms of housing and lending discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities for all people. As the trade association for over 170 fair housing and justice-centered organizations and individuals throughout the U.S. and its territories, NFHA works to dismantle longstanding barriers to equity and build diverse, inclusive, well-resourced communities.