By Wade Henderson
African-Americans have long been targets of financial predators, but a new agency that will protect consumers has opened its doors. President Obama’s nominee to head the agency has been a true champion for minorities – but he will face an uphill battle to be confirmed after Oct. 6 when the Senate Banking Committee was expected to move his nomination to the Senate floor.
Predatory lending to Black people has a very long history. In the 1950s, speculators were known to sell homes to Black families “on contract,” that is, on an installment plan. Black buyers made a down payment and were responsible for taxes, insurance, maintenance, and interest, but could lose the property if they missed even one payment. Given the expensive terms, missed payments were common, which meant that many Black buyers were evicted and had their properties resold over and over again, impoverishing entire neighborhoods and robbing families of their life savings.
Today, predatory financial products marketed to African-Americans are just as common, but increasingly complex. These range from everyday products like payday loans, tax refund anticipation loans, and prepaid debit cards, and go all the way up to the complicated subprime mortgages that have devastated Black communities. These products have gone under-regulated for far too long.
President Obama and the Democrats in Congress responded by establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new federal agency with the authority to crack down on predatory financial practices that enable companies to profit off of misery.
The president has also nominated a man to lead it who has protected and advanced the rights of minority consumers throughout his career, Richard Cordray. Until recently, Cordray headed up the nascent CFPB’s enforcement division, but before that he served the state of Ohio as its attorney general. If you ask about him around Washington circles, most know him as a smart guy who won Jeopardy five times. But ask Ohio’s Black and Hispanic leaders what they think of Cordray, and they’ll give you the real story.
At the time that Cordray was attorney general, Ohio’s urban communities were being described in the media as the foreclosure epicenters of the nation. In the Cleveland-area, one out of 13 homes was vacant, with some estimates going much higher. Mortgage lenders had so many vacant properties that they were trying to sell them for less than they were worth in the 1920s.
Many of these homes once belonged to lower-income families of all races who were sold subprime mortgages that they couldn’t pay back. The banks then illegally fast-tracked foreclosures by submitting fraudulently signed documents to the courts. This situation is strikingly familiar to one that a Black family in the 1950s might have faced.
Officials in Ohio were among the first and the most aggressive in going after the banks making fraudulent foreclosures. Cordray filed a lawsuit against a prominent bank, GMAC, seeking $25,000 for every violation of the state’s consumer protection laws. It was hailed as “the biggest and boldest legal action taken against the mortgage companies” since the crisis began. Cordray also called on other banks to investigate their foreclosure processes and to stop evicting families immediately.
But a genuine advocate like Cordray will not have an easy time getting confirmed in this polarized political atmosphere. Getting Congress to agree to federal regulation of predatory bank practices was one of President Obama’s hardest won battles thus far. But now, the same members of lawmakers who fought tooth and nail to keep the agency from launching have set their sights on weakening it, neutering it before it can even fulfill its mandate.
One way that they’ve done this is by announcing that they will block Cordray’s confirmation – or the confirmation of anyone else Obama might appoint to head the agency – unless the agency’s enforcement powers are gutted.
The foreclosure crisis is still alive and well in communities of color, who are now on the wrong side of the largest wealth gap ever recorded. We cannot wait for a champion to save us. We must become our own champions and advocate for those like Richard Cordray who will fight for us.
Wade Henderson is the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.