WASHINGTON - One of the largest banks in the United States is working with a major civil rights organization, the NAACP, to help African Americans who obtained loans to buy homes they could not afford. This comes as the U.S. housing market is still reeling from a downturn in property prices and record numbers of home foreclosures over the last four years.
Avery Salkey is one of more than 2 million Americans who have lost homes to foreclosure since 2007. She says it all started when a mortgage broker convinced her to refinance her home loan at 13 percent. "They (the lender) give you a loan. They give you a loan that you cannot afford in the first place and then they are not willing to work with you," she said.
The foreclosure crisis has hit the African-American community especially hard. So the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and Wells Fargo Bank have opened a financial literacy center in Washington to help homeowners, and improve relations between lenders and minorities. Benjamin Todd Jealous is president of the NAACP .
"We are not just going to be partnering to educate people outside the bank but to also to educate people inside the bank and that is important because in this country we keep on repeating the same sins of massive racial discrimination and it needs to stop across the industry," he said.
The NAACP initially accused Wells Fargo of unfair lending practices, but dropped a planned lawsuit after the bank agreed to develop programs to help African Americans get high quality loans.
"Just putting people in homes and having them unfortunately leave those homes because the loans didn't work is not right. So sustainable home ownership is really the key that we are hoping to be able to solve by working together," said Jon Campbell, vice president of social responsibility for Wells Fargo Bank.
Consumer advocates say some lenders encouraged loan officers to sell mortgages with higher interest rates to blacks. A major portion of those home loans ended in foreclosure. Georgette Dixon with Wells Fargo says the financial literacy center will help African Americans who want to purchase homes.
"Our goal is to leverage our resources around community development and community relations to bring access to resources: credit education, financial education, home buyer counseling services. All of the things that we and the NAACP believe are critical to turning this thing around for the African-American community," she said.
Another group, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, has started a national campaign to warn people about scams targeting minority homeowners.
"They (the criminals) are claiming they can save the home from foreclosure, they can help a distressed borrower get a loan modification from their bank. But really what they are doing is trying to gain the trust of a distressed borrower then take their money and run," said Yolanda McGill, a spokeswoman for the committee.
McGill says the committee's loan modification scam prevention network has received more than 12,000 complaints since 2010. It turns the complaints over to law enforcement agencies to go after so-called fraudulent rescue companies. Meanwhile mortgage brokers like Annette Alonso are meeting to talk about ways to do more to stop foreclosures.
"We've gotten back to the basics of underwriting making sure that people that are buying these houses have the wherewithal to buy them, they have the ability to pay for the mortgages," she said.
Analysts say efforts to help black homeowners and make mortgage lending more fair could ease a foreclosure crisis that is expected to continue through next year.