By Hopeton Hay
With the crisis in the American banking and finance system, there is a growing chorus of voices attempting to lay some of the blame for the subprime mortgage meltdown at the feet of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and efforts to promote homeownership for low income and minority families. Last October in a column on the financial crisis called The Roots of Our Disaster in the Austin American Statesman, columnist Scott Burns referred to the Community Reinvestment Act as one of the “Four Horseman of Our Apocalypse.” He blamed “innovations to mortgages to comply with CRA” charging that it forced “the institutional reduction of lending standards.”
Others have argued that the efforts by Congress, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Fannie Mae, and others to increase homeownership in low income and minority communities played a significant role in the subprime mortgage debacle. At the same time however, CRA advocates expressed strong concern about the growth of subprime lending in low income and minority communities
If CRA and promoting increased homeownership in the minority community played major role in the subprime disaster, why did that occur now? CRA has been around since 1977, enforced in earnest since 1989, and enjoyed unprecedented federal support during the Clinton Administration. It was in 1989 that Congress enacted the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”), which amended the CRA, giving it more teeth, and required collection of data on home loans by race. In 1994 HUD launched the National Homeownership Strategy.
When one reviews the rules of CRA and the concerns expressed by CRA advocates with subprime mortgage lending to minorities it renders those arguments baseless.
So what is CRA and does it require financial institutions to loosen underwriting standards loans to comply? According to the Community Reinvestment Act and Interstate Deposit Production Regulations, CRA requires federal financial supervisory agencies “to assess an institution’s record of helping to meet the credit needs of the local communities in which the institution is chartered, consistent with the safe and sound operation of the institution, and to take this record into account in the agency’s evaluation of an application for a deposit facility by the institution.”
Well the first thing of note is that CRA applies to depository institutions. According to testimony on CRA provided to the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee on February 8, 2008 by University of Michigan Law Professor Michael Barr, more than half the subprime mortgages were originated by independent mortgage companies in 2005. That is half the subprime mortgages were made by lenders not being examined for compliance to CRA.
The second important fact from the CRA rules is the expectation that credit needs are met in a safe and sound manner. Now the rules do encourage some underwriting flexibility. The rules state that “Banks are permitted and encouraged to develop and apply flexible underwriting standards for loans that benefit low- or moderate-income geographies or individuals only if consistent with safe and sound operations.” Yes, flexibility is encouraged, but not mandated, but it still must be done in a safe and sound manner. There is a section in CRA rules called safe and sound operations that says “the CRA does not require a bank to make loans or investments or to provide services that are inconsistent with safe and sound operations. “
Some of the leading CRA advocates expressed concern about the use of subprime loans long before the meltdown. Many of them felt that racial minorities and low income communities were being disproportionately targeted by subprime lenders. In 2002, the Center for Community Change’s Neighborhood Revitalization Project published a report, Risk or Race? Racial Disparities and the Subprime Refinance Market. In the executive summary of the report, the Center for Community Change declares its concern that “high foreclosure rates for subprime loans indicate that many subprime borrowers are entering into mortgage loans they cannot afford.”
Also in 2002, the Southwest Regional Office of Consumers Union published the report, Minority Subprime Borrowers. Like the report from the Center for Community Change, the report focused on the disproportionate number of subprime loans being made in minority communities, but examined it from a Texas perspective and looked only at home refinancing. The report recognized the danger of subprime lending saying that, “Subprime lending can have disastrous consequences for low income and minority communities.” Consumers Union went even further recommending state legislation that would “require loan counseling for any borrower getting a high cost loan during the existing 12 day waiting period before the loan closes” and “prohibit lending without due regard to repayment ability.”
In the 2005 report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), The 2005 Fair Lending Disparities: Stubborn and Persistent II, concern about the impact of subprime lending was again the major focus. “Our analysis revealed a disproportionate amount of high-cost lending targeted to vulnerable borrowers and communities…,” wrote NCRC.
“Further,” comments NCRC, “ the pervasiveness of subprime lending in communities of color, in all regions and in metropolitan areas of all sizes, raises important public policy concerns about possible adverse implications stemming from these heavy geographic concentrations.”
As the information above clearly reveals, CRA advocates identified the threat of subprime lending long before it threatened the financial stability of our banking industry and were concerned about its heavy concentration in low income and minority communities. They clearly did not support market driven subprime lending with little regulation. Also, while CRA did give banks permission to modify underwriting to meet the lending needs of low to moderate income communities, it was not a requirement, and the regulators made it plain that it should be done in a safe and sound manner. As articles written recently in the New York Times document, it was the desire for quick and easy profits more than anything that drove many of the decisions that led to the subprime meltdown.
Hopeton Hay is editor and publisher of the Economic Perspectives blog and chairman of the Economic Development Committee of the Texas NAACP. He also spent 5 1/2 years working for the NAACP Community Development Resource Center, a CRA partnership between the NAACP and Bank of America.