Anita Chabria: Wells Fargo denied well-off borrowers low-interest loans. Is it because they're Black?
Published in Business News
Gia Gray seems like a dream client for any bank: a well-off family doctor living in an exclusive Bay Area town, in a 5,000-square-foot mansion with a master bath bigger than my office.
With a credit score topping 800, she expected little drama when she and her husband decided to refinance their Danville home and two other investment properties in 2020 to capture some of the lowest interest rates in recent history — remember when 3% loans were a thing?
But after endless excuses and delays in her applications, "I started feeling Black," Gray told me. Her bank, Wells Fargo, flat out turned her down on the investment properties, she said, and slow-rolled the application on her residence, coming up with new requirements as the process dragged on.
"At the visceral level, I felt that something was not right," she said.
Across the country, other borrowers have had similar experiences. Earlier this year, a federal court in Northern California, where Wells Fargo is headquartered, consolidated the claims of Gray and seven other Black plaintiffs into one case that may be certified as a class-action suit in coming months.
The lead attorney in the case, Los Angeles-based Dennis S. Ellis, says up to 750,000 minority customers nationwide — Black, Asian and Latino — could have been affected by what he sees as a pattern of discriminatory lending that left qualified borrowers denied or pushed into higher interest rates and more expensive loans.
It's a form of modern-day economic redlining, he told me, that if proven true inflicted pain that resonated beyond the borrowers, many of whom lost out on a chance to save hundreds or thousands off their loans each month. It also hurt Black and minority communities as a whole, because it took away an exceptional chance to build generational wealth through affordable homeownership.
"Realizing the American dream of owning your own home is not just about having a safe place to live," Ellis pointed out. "It's about securing the future of generations that follow because of the incredible financial stability that homeownership provides."
Ellis contends that the problem developed in part because Wells Fargo was short-staffed during the pandemic and relied on flawed algorithms and an automated system that may have had discrimination baked into it.
But it wouldn't be the first time Wells Fargo was found to have discriminated. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice won a $175-million settlement against the bank, the second-largest fair-lending settlement in the department's history, over allegations that Wells Fargo engaged in a pattern or practice of "discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending from 2004 through 2009."
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