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On July 18, Federal Reserve Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr delivered a speech on adjusting the Fair Housing Act and ECOA in response to the increasing relevance of artificial intelligence. Barr explained how the digital economy offers many great utilizations, such as accessing the creditworthiness of individuals without credit history and facilitating wider access to credit for those who may otherwise be excluded. Along with a digital economy, Barr cautioned, comes negative implications where technologies can potentially violate the fair lending laws and may perpetuate existing disparities and inaccuracies, among other things. Barr highlighted Special Purpose Credit Programs as a tool to address discrimination and bias in mortgage credit transactions. In addition, Barr highlighted two recent initiatives taken by the Fed to tackle appraisal discrimination and bias in housing mortgage credit transactions—one involved inviting public feedback on a proposed rule to uphold credibility and integrity in automated valuation models, and the other sought input on guidance addressing risks related to deficient home appraisals, emphasizing "reconsiderations of value" in the process. (Covered by InfoBytes here and here.) Barr also commented that through the Fed’s supervisory process, it is evaluating whether firms have proper risk management and controls, including with respect to these new technologies.
On June 13, HUD announced a Charge of Discrimination against several entities and individuals accused of allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against New York City homeowners on the basis of race, color, or national origin. According to HUD, the seven complainants alleged that the respondents targeted them with offers of mortgage and foreclosure prevention assistance. Respondents allegedly filed illegitimate liens and instructed telemarketers to use “affinity marketing” to build relationships with elderly, vulnerable, and distressed homeowners by bringing up shared national origin and cultural practice. Homeowners who accepted respondents’ purported loan modification services were convinced to sign documents that unknowingly sold their homes to two entities named as respondents, HUD said, explaining that respondents would then attempt to force homeowners to vacate their homes. These efforts were disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods with a high majority of persons of color (specifically persons of Black and Caribbean descent), HUD noted, adding that in order to persuade lenders to approve the short sale, some of the respondents would allegedly create private real estate listings for homeowners’ properties and present them to the bank as public listings, while falsely claiming no offers had been received in order to secure minimal sales prices. Homeowners were also allegedly promised that the short sales were part of the loan modification services and that the property would be transferred back into their names or that of a family member after a certain period, and that they would be able to remain in their homes until the title was returned. In fact, however, respondents intended to flip the properties for profit.
The charge will be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge unless a party elects to have the case heard in federal district court. HUD requested that the respondents be enjoined from continuing to discriminate against any person because of race, color, or national origin, and asked for damages to fully compensate the complainants, as well as the maximum civil penalty for each respondent.
On March 15, the New York attorney general announced a settlement with a real estate brokerage firm to resolve claims that it allegedly discriminated against Black, Hispanic, and other homebuyers of color on Long Island. According to the announcement, the Office of the Attorney General commenced investigations into several brokerage firms, in which it found that agents employed by the brokerage firm at issue violated the Fair Housing Act and New York state law when they allegedly “subjected prospective homebuyers of color to different requirements than white homebuyers, directed homebuyers of color to homes in neighborhoods where residents predominantly belonged to communities of color, and otherwise engaged in biased behavior.” In certain instances, agents allegedly disparaged neighborhoods of color and “warned white potential homebuyers about the diverse racial makeup of the neighborhood but did not share the same comments with Black and Hispanic potential homebuyers.”
Under the terms of the assurance of discontinuance, the brokerage firm agreed to stop the alleged conduct, will offer comprehensive fair housing training to all agents, and will provide a discrimination complaint form on its website. The brokerage firm will also pay $20,000 in penalties and $10,000 to Suffolk County to promote enforcement and compliance with fair housing laws. This is the fourth action taken by the AG’s office against real estate brokerage firms in the state. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last August three Long Island real estate brokerage firms entered settlements to resolve claims of discriminatory practices.
On March 17, HUD announced the submission of a final rule—Reinstatement of HUD’s Discriminatory Effects Standard—which would rescind the agency’s 2020 regulation governing Fair Housing Act (FHA or the Act) disparate impact claims and reinstate the agency’s 2013 discriminatory effects rule. Explaining that “the 2013 rule is more consistent with how the [FHA] has been applied in the courts and in front of the agency for more than 50 years,” HUD emphasized that it also “more effectively implements the Act’s broad remedial purpose of eliminating unnecessary discriminatory practices from the housing market.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2021, HUD proposed rescinding the 2020 rule, which was intended to align the 2013 rule with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. The 2020 rule included, among other things, a modification of the three-step burden-shifting framework in its 2013 rule, several new elements that plaintiffs must show to establish that a policy or practice has a “discriminatory effect,” and specific defenses that defendants can assert to refute disparate impact claims. According to HUD’s recent announcement, the modifications contained within the 2020 rule complicated the discriminatory effects framework, created challenges for establishing whether a policy violates the FHA, and made it harder for entities regulated by the Act to assess whether their policies were lawful.
The final rule is effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. According to HUD, the 2020 rule never went into effect due to a preliminary injunction issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and the 2013 rule has been and currently is in effect. Regulated entities that have been complying with the 2013 rule will not need to change any practices currently in place to comply with the final rule, HUD said.
On March 13, the DOJ and CFPB filed a statement of interest saying that a “lender violates both the [Fair Housing Act (FHA)] and ECOA if it relies on an appraisal that it knows or should know to be discriminatory.” (See also CFPB blog post here.) Pointing out that the case raises important legal questions regarding the issue of appraisal bias, the agencies explained that the DOJ has enforcement authority under both the FHA and ECOA, and the Bureau has authority to interpret and issue rules under ECOA and enforce the statute’s requirements.
The case, which is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, concerns whether an appraiser, a real estate appraisal company, and an online mortgage lender (collectively, “defendants”) violated federal and state law by undervaluing plaintiffs’ home on the basis of race and denying a mortgage refinancing application based on the appraisal. Plaintiffs, who are Black, claimed their home was appraised for a lower amount on the basis of race, and maintained that the lender denied their loan even after being told the appraisal was discriminatory. Additionally, plaintiffs claimed that after they replaced family photos with pictures of white people and had a white colleague meet a new appraiser, that appraiser appraised the house for $750,000—a nearly 60 percent increase despite there not being any significant improvements made to the house or meaningful appreciation in the value of comparable homes in the market.
The defendant appraiser filed a counterclaim against the plaintiffs providing technical arguments for why he valued the home at $472,000, including that the property next door was listed for $500,000, but was later reduced to $475,000, only 10 days after he completed the appraisal. He further claimed that the second appraisal failed to include that property as a comparison and relied on home sales that had not happened as of the time of the first appraisal. The lender argued that it should not be held liable because it was relying on a third-party appraiser and that “it can be liable only if it took discriminatory actions that were entirely separate from [the appraiser’s].”
While the statement does not address the issue of vicarious liability, the DOJ and CFPB asserted that lenders can be held liable under the FHA and ECOA for relying on discriminatory appraisals. They explained that it is “well-established that a lender is liable if it relies on an appraisal that it knows or should know to be discriminatory.” The statement also provided that for disparate treatment claims under the FHA and ECOA, “plaintiffs need only plead facts that plausibly allege discriminatory intent.” The agencies also argued that a violation of Section 3617 of the FHA (which includes “a prohibition against retaliating in response to the exercise of fair housing rights”) “does not require a ‘predicate violation’ of the FHA.
On February 14, CFPB Fair Lending Director Patrice Ficklin joined senior leaders from the FDIC, HUD, NCUA, Federal Reserve Board, DOJ, OCC, and FHFA in submitting a joint letter to The Appraisal Foundation (TAF) urging the organization to further revise its draft Ethics Rule for appraisers to include a detailed statement of federal prohibitions against discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and ECOA.
This is the second time the agencies have raised concerns with TAF. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last February, the agencies sent a joint letter in response to a request for comments on proposed changes to the 2023 Appraisal Standards Board Ethics Rule and Advisory Opinion 16, in which they noted that while provisions prohibit an appraiser from relying on “unsupported conclusions relating to characteristics such as race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, familial status, age, receipt of public assistance income, disability, or an unsupported conclusion that homogeneity of such characteristics is necessary to maximize value,” the “provisions do not prohibit an appraiser from relying on ‘supported conclusions’ based on such characteristics and, therefore, suggest that such reliance may be permissible.” The letter noted that the federal ban on discrimination under the FHA and ECOA is not limited only to “unsupported” conclusions, and that any discussions related to potential appraisal bias should be consistent with all applicable nondiscrimination laws.
In their second letter, the agencies said that the fourth draft removed a detailed, unambiguous summary covering nondiscrimination standards under the FHA and ECOA, and instead substituted “a distinction between unethical discrimination and unlawful discrimination.” The letter expressed concerns that the term “unethical discrimination” is not well established in current law or practice, and could lead to confusion in the appraisal industry. Moreover, the letter noted that “the term ‘ethical’ discrimination, and reference to the possibility of a protected characteristic being ‘essential to the assignment and necessary for credible assignment results,’ appears to resemble the concept of ‘supported’ discrimination that the agencies previously disfavored and whose removal and replacement with a summary of the relevant law significantly improved the draft Ethics Rule.” The agencies further cautioned that “[s]uggesting that appraisers avoid ‘bias, prejudice, or stereotype’ as general norms” would grant individual appraisers wide discretion in applying these norms and likely yield inconsistent results. The agencies advised TAF to provide a thorough explanation of these legal distinctions.
Recently, HUD announced plans to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) entitled “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH). The new rule will update a 2015 final rule that was intended to implement the Fair Housing Act’s statutory mandate that HUD ensure that recipients of its funding work to further fair housing, which was repealed by the Trump administration. In 2021, the Biden administration published an interim final rule to restore certain definitions and certifications to its regulations implementing the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to affirmatively further fair housing (covered by InfoBytes here). “This proposed rule is a major step towards fulfilling the law’s full promise and advancing our legal, ethical, and moral charge to provide equitable access to opportunity for all,” HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said in an announcement.
The NPRM incorporates much of the 2015 AFFH rule and will streamline the required fair housing analysis for states, local communities, and public housing agencies. Program participants would be required to ensure protected classes have equitable access to affordable housing opportunities, by, for example, submitting an equity plan to HUD every five years. HUD-accepted equity plan analysis, goals, and strategies would then be incorporated into program participants’ subsequent planning documents. Program participants would also be required to conduct and submit annual progress evaluations. Both the equity plans and annual progress evaluations would be made available online.
HUD further explained that the NPRM is intended to simplify required fair housing analysis, increase transparency for public review and comment, improve compliance oversight, provide a process for regular progress evaluations, and enhance accountability, among other things. Comments on the NPRM are due April 24. HUD’s quick reference guide provides additional information.
On January 12, the DOJ announced a more than $31 million settlement with a national bank over redlining allegations. Calling the action the largest redlining settlement agreement in the department’s history, the DOJ’s complaint alleged that the bank violated the Fair Housing Act and ECOA by, among other things, failing to provide mortgage lending services to majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. The DOJ contended that because the bank’s internal fair lending oversight, polices, and procedures allegedly failed to ensure that it was able to provide equal access to credit to residents of majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, the bank generated disproportionately low numbers of loan applications and home loans from these neighborhoods compared to similarly-situated lenders.
Under the terms of the consent order (which was finalized January 30), the bank (which denies the allegations) has agreed to invest a minimum of $29.5 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase credit for home mortgage loans, home improvement loans, and home refinance loans extended to residents of majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. The bank has also agreed to spend at least half a million dollars on advertising and outreach targeted toward residents of these neighborhoods, while it will spend at least another half a million dollars on a consumer financial education program to increase residents’ access to credit. An additional $750,000 is earmarked for use in developing community partnerships to provide services for increasing access to residential mortgage credit.
Additionally, the bank agreed to (i) open one new branch in a majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhood and explore future opportunities for expansion within Los Angeles County; (ii) dedicate at least four mortgage loan officers to serving majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods; and (iii) employ a full-time community lending manager to oversee the continued development of lending in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. A community credit needs research-based market assessment will also be conducted by the bank to identify financial services’ needs for majority-Black and Hispanic census tracts within Los Angeles County. According to the DOJ’s announcement, the bank stated it is proactively taking measures to expand its lending services in other markets around the county to improve access to credit in communities of color. Measures include “creating a residential mortgage special purpose credit program to cover geographic areas in various locations throughout the country, including New York, Georgia, Nevada, and Tennessee,” and launching “a small business lending program that will be aimed at assisting underserved business owners in operating and growing their business.” The bank also agreed to spend at least $100,000 per year on advertising and outreach in the identified areas and $100,000 on a consumer financial education program.
On January 9, the DOJ informed a New York federal judge that it had reached a follow-up agreement with a global social media company to ensure its compliance with a June 2022 settlement that required the company to stop using a tool that allowed advertisers to exclude certain users from seeing housing ads based on their sex and estimated race/ethnicity. Explaining that the tool violated the Fair Housing Act, the letter said the company agreed to allow the tool to expire and agreed to build a system to reduce variances in its housing ad delivery system related to sex and estimated race/ethnicity. A follow-up agreement reached between the parties on compliance targets established that the company will be subject to court oversight and regular compliance review through June 27, 2026. The company released a statement following the settlement announcing it is making changes “in part to address feedback we’ve heard from civil rights groups, policymakers and regulators about how our ad system delivers certain categories of personalized ads, especially when it comes to fairness.” The company further noted that “while HUD raised concerns about personalized housing ads specifically, we also plan to use this method for ads related to employment and credit. Discrimination in housing, employment and credit is a deep-rooted problem with a long history in the US, and we are committed to broadening opportunities for marginalized communities in these spaces and others.”
On January 9, the DOJ and HUD announced they filed a joint statement of interest in a pending action alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) against Black and Hispanic rental applicants based on the use of an algorithm-based tenant screening system. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleged that Black and Hispanic rental applications who use housing vouchers to pay part of their rent were denied rental housing due to their “SafeRent Score,” which is derived from the defendants’ algorithm-based screening software. The plaintiffs claimed that the algorithm relies on factors that disproportionately disadvantage Black and Hispanic applicants, such as credit history and non-tenancy related debts, and fails to consider that the use of HUD-funded housing vouchers makes such tenants more likely to pay their rents. Through the statement of interest, the agencies seek to clarify two questions of law they claim the defendants erroneously represented in their motions to dismiss: (i) the appropriate standard for pleading disparate impact claims under the FHA; and (ii) the type of companies that fall under the FHA’s application.
The agencies first challenged that the defendants did not apply the proper pleading standard for a claim of disparate impact under the FHA. Explaining that in order to establish an FHA disparate impact claim, “plaintiffs must show ‘the occurrence of certain outwardly neutral practices’ and ‘a significantly adverse or disproportionate impact on persons of a particular type produced by the defendant’s facially neutral acts or practices,’” The agencies disagreed with the defendants’ assertion that the plaintiffs “must also allege specific facts establishing that the policy is ‘artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary.” This contention, the agencies said, “conflates the burden-shifting framework for proving disparate impact claims with the pleading burden.” The agencies also rejected arguments that the plaintiffs must challenge the entire “formula” of the scoring system and not just one element in order to allege a statistical disparity, in addition to providing “statistical findings specific to the disparate impact of the scoring system.” According to the agencies, the plaintiffs adequately identified an “essential nexus” between the algorithm’s scoring system and the disproportionate effect on certain rental applicants based on race.
The agencies also explained that residential screening companies, including the defendants, fall under the FHA’s purview. While the defendants argued that the FHA does not apply to companies “that are not landlords and do not make housing decisions, but only offer services to assist those that do make housing decisions,” the agencies contended that this misconstrues the clear statutory language of the FHA and presented case law affirming that FHA liability reaches “a broad array of entities providing housing-related services.”
“Housing providers and tenant screening companies that use algorithms and data to screen tenants are not absolved from liability when their practices disproportionately deny people of color access to fair housing opportunities,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division stressed. “This filing demonstrates the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring that the Fair Housing Act is appropriately applied in cases involving algorithms and tenant screening software.”