Alston & Bird Consumer Finance Blog


District Court Dismisses CFPB’s Redlining Case Against Townstone Financial

A&B ABstract:

On Friday, in the CFPB v. Townstone Financial fair lending case, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed with prejudice the complaint filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), holding that the plain language of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) does not prohibit discrimination against prospective applicants.


 The complaint, filed by the CFPB in July 2020, alleged that Townstone Financial, Inc., a nonbank retail-mortgage creditor and broker based in Chicago, engaged in discriminatory acts or practices in violation of ECOA, including: (1) making statements during its weekly radio shows and podcasts through which it marketed its services, that discouraged prospective African-American applicants from applying for mortgage loans; (2) discouraging prospective applicants living in African-American neighborhoods from applying for mortgage loans; and (3) discouraged prospective applicants living in other areas from applying for mortgage loans for properties located in African-American neighborhoods.

Court Opinion

The court, in its opinion, summarized the allegations as follows: “The CFPB alleges that Townstone’s acts and practices would discourage African-American prospective applicants, as well as prospective applicants in majority- and high-African-American neighborhoods in the Chicago MSA from seeking credit.” To determine whether the CFPB’s allegation of discrimination against “prospective applicants” was permissible under ECOA, the court applied the framework set forth in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).

The court found, upon applying the first step of the Chevron analysis, that “Congress has directly and unambiguously spoken on the issue at hand and [that ECOA] only prohibits discrimination against applicants” (emphasis added). In granting Townstone’s motion to dismiss, the court reasoned that the plain text of the ECOA applies to “applicants,” which the ECOA “clearly and unambiguously defines as a person who applies to a creditor for credit” – and not to “prospective applicants.” Given this, the court was not required to move on to the second step of the Chevron analysis and consider the CFPB’s interpretation of the statute. Accordingly, the CFPB’s claim under ECOA was dismissed with prejudice, as “the CFPB cannot amend its pleading in a way that would change the language of the ECOA.”

Notably, the fact that the anti-discouragement provision of Regulation B refers to “prospective applicants” was not sufficient to convince the court. Further, because the court found that ECOA unambiguously applies only to “applicants,” the court did not analyze whether the ECOA’s prohibition on “discrimination” encompasses “discouragement.” The court likewise did not reach Townstone’s argument that the CFPB is attempting to create affirmative obligations with respect to marketing and the hiring of loan officers, nor its arguments under the First and Fifth Amendments.


Ultimately, the court’s dismissal of the CFPB’s case against Townstone casts significant doubt on the agency’s ECOA discouragement theory and its approach to fair lending enforcement, particularly the agency’s redlining investigations. We expect the CFPB to appeal the court’s order, though it is possible that existing investigations based on allegations of discouragement may experience a temporary slowdown in the interim.

HELOCs On the Rise: Is Your Servicing CMS Ready?

A&B ABstract:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) has moved to clarify its regulatory authority at a time when the economic climate is ripe for a resurgence in HELOC lending. In an amicus brief filed by the CFPB on November 30, 2022 (the “Amicus Brief”), the Bureau acknowledged that its Mortgage Servicing Rules, which, in 2013, amended Regulation X, RESPA’s implementing regulation, and Regulation Z, TILA’s implementing regulation, do not apply to home equity lines of credit (“HELOCs”).  This is consistent with the Bureau’s guidance in the preamble to the CFPB Mortgage Servicing Rules under RESPA, wherein the Bureau recognized that HELOCs have a different risk profile, and are serviced differently, than first-lien mortgage loans, and that many of the rules under Regulation X would be “irrelevant to HELOCs” and “would substantially overlap” with the longstanding protections under TILA and Regulation Z that apply to HELOCs.

During this past refinance boom, consumers refinanced mortgage loans at record rates. Moreover, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve, consumers are sitting on nearly 30 trillion dollars in home equity.  HELOCs allow consumers the opportunity to extract equity from their homes without losing the low interest rate on their first-lien loan. Generally, a HELOC is a revolving line of credit that is secured by a subordinate mortgage on the borrower’s residence that typically has a draw period of 5 or 10 years.  At the end of the draw period, the outstanding loan payment converts to a repayment period of 5 to 25 years with interest and principal payments required that fully amortize the balance.

Issues to Consider in Servicing HELOCs

Servicing HELOCs raise unique issues given the open-end nature of the loan, the typical second lien position, and the different regulatory requirements.  HELOC servicers will need to ensure their compliance management systems (“CMS”) are robust enough to account for a potential uptick in HELOC lending. Among many other issues, servicers will want to ensure their operations comply with several regulatory requirements, including:

Offsets: In the Amicus Brief, the CFPB argues that HELOCs accessible by a credit card are subject to the provisions of TILA and Regulation Z that prohibit card issuers from using deposit account funds to offset indebtedness arising out of a credit card transaction.

Disclosures: Long before the CFPB Mortgage Servicing Rules, TILA and Regulation Z contained disclosures applicable to HELOCs. As a result, the provisions of the CFPB Mortgage Servicing Rules under Regulation Z governing periodic billing statements, adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) interest rate adjustment notices, and payment crediting provisions do not apply to HELOCs as these provisions are specifically limited to closed-end consumer credit transactions. However, the payoff statement requirements under Regulation Z are applicable both to HELOCs and closed-end consumer credit transactions secured by a dwelling. In addition to certain account-opening disclosures, a HELOC creditor (or its servicer) must make certain subsequent disclosures to the borrower, either annually (e.g., an annual statement) or upon the occurrence of a specific trigger event, such as the addition of a credit access device, a change in terms or change in billing cycle, or a notice to restrict credit. It is also worth noting that Regulation Z’s mortgage transfer notice (commonly referred to as the Section 404 notice) applicable when a loan is transferred, sold or assigned to a third party, applies to HELOCs. In contrast, RESPA’s servicing transfer notice does not apply to HELOCs.

Periodic Statements: TILA and Regulation Z contain a different set of periodic statement requirements, predating the CFPB Mortgage Servicing Rules, which are applicable to HELOCs. Under TILA, a servicer must comply with the open-end periodic statement requirements. That is true even if the HELOC has an open-end draw period followed by a closed-end repayment period, during which no further draws are permitted. Such statements can be complex given that principal repayment and interest accrual vary based on draws; there will be a conversion to scheduled amortization after the draw period ends; and balloon payments may be required at maturity, resulting in the need for servicing system adjustments.

Billing Error Resolution: Instead of having to comply with the Regulation X requirements for notices of error, HELOCs are subject to Regulation Z’s billing error resolution requirements.

Crediting of Payments: A creditor may credit a payment to the consumer’s account, including a HELOC, as of the date of receipt, except when a delay in crediting does not result in a finance or other charge, or except as otherwise provided in 12 C.F.R. § 1026.10(a).

Restrictions on Servicing Fees: Regulation Z restricts certain new servicing fees that may be imposed, where such fees are not provided for in the contract, because the credit may not, by contract or otherwise, change any term except as provided in 12 C.F.R § 1026.40.  With the CFPB’s increased focus on fees, this provision may be an area of focus for the Bureau and state regulators.

Restriction on Changing the APR: The creditor may not, by contract or otherwise, change the APR of a HELOC unless such change is based on an index that is not under the creditor’s control and such index is available to the general public.  However, this requirement does not prohibit rate changes which are specifically set forth in the agreement, such as stepped-rate plans or preferred-rate provisions.

Terminating, Suspending or Reducing a Line of Credit: TILA and Regulation Z restrict the ability of the creditor to prohibit additional extensions of credit or reduce the credit limit applicable to an agreement under those circumstances set forth in 12 C.F.R § 1026.40.  Similarly, TILA and Regulation Z impose restrictions on when the creditor may terminate and accelerate the loan balance.

Rescission: Similar to closed-end loans, the consumer will have a right of rescission on a HELOC; however, the right extends beyond just the initial account opening. During the servicing of a HELOC, the consumer has a right of rescission whenever (i) credit is extended under the plan, or (ii) the credit limit is increased. But there is no right of rescission when credit extensions are made in accordance with the existing credit limit under the plan. If rescission applies, the notice and procedural requirements set forth in TILA and Regulation Z must be followed.

Default: Loss mitigation and default recovery actions may be limited by the firstien loan. That’s because default or acceleration of the first-lien loan immediately triggers loss mitigation and default recovery to protect the second-lien loan.  The protection of the second-lien loan may involve advancing monthly payments on the first-lien loan.  Foreclosure pursued against the first-lien loan will trigger second lien to participate and monitor for protection and recovery. Even though not applicable to HELOCs, some servicers may consider complying with loss mitigation provisions as guidelines or best practices.

ECOA and FCRA: Terminating, suspending, or reducing the credit limit on a HELOC based on declining property values could raise redlining risk, which is a form of illegal disparate treatment in which a lender provides unequal access to credit or unequal terms of credit because of a prohibited characteristic of the residents of the area in which the credit seeker resides or will reside or in which the residential property to be mortgaged is located. Thus, lenders and servicers should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that actions to reduce, terminate or suspend HELOCs are carried out in a non-discriminatory manner.  Relatedly, the CFPB’s authority under the Dodd-Frank Act to prohibit unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices will similarly prohibit certain conduct in connection with the servicing of HELOCs that the CFPB may consider to be harmful to consumers.  It is also important to remember that ECOA requires that a creditor notify an applicant of action taken within 30 days after taking adverse action on an existing account, where the adverse action includes a termination of an account, an unfavorable change in the terms of an account, or a refusal to increase the amount of credit available to an applicant who has made an application for an increase.  Similar to ECOA, FCRA also requires the servicer to provide the consumer with an adverse action notice in certain circumstances.

State Law Considerations: And let’s not forget state law issues. While most of the CFPB’s Mortgage Servicing Rules do not apply to HELOCs, many state provisions may cover HELOCs.  As most HELOCs are subordinate-lien loans, second lien licensing law obligations arise. Also, sourcing, processing and funding draw requests could implicate loan originator and/or money transmitter licensing obligations. Also, at least one state prohibits a licensee from servicing a usurious loan.  For HELOCs, the issue is not only the initial rate but also the adjusted rate (assuming it is an ARM).  There may also be state-specific disclosure obligations, as well as restrictions on product terms (such as balloon payments or lien releases), fees, or credit line access devices, to name a few.


The servicing of HELOCs involve many of the same aspects as servicing first-lien residential mortgage loans.  However, because of the open-end credit line features and the typical second-lien position, there are several unique aspects to servicing HELOCs.  And, because there are no industry standard HELOC agreements, the terms of the HELOC (e.g., the length of draw and amortization periods, interest-only payment features, balloon, credit access, etc.) can vary greatly.  The economic climate is poised for a resurgence in home equity lending.  Now is the time to ensure your CMS is up to the task.


Is the DOJ (De Facto) Enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act?

A&B Abstract:

Furthering the Justice Department’s Combating Redlining Initiative, the Department of Justice has announced another redlining settlement.  But this settlement is different – this one involves a bank that has received top marks by its prudential regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for its compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a statute enacted to reduce redlining, for the same years that the DOJ alleged the bank engaged in redlining.

The DOJ’s Allegations

Lakeland Bank is a northern New Jersey-based, state chartered bank with more than $10 billion in assets.  The DOJ alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)/Regulation B, and specifically “that Lakeland engaged in illegal redlining by avoiding providing home loans and other mortgage services, and engaged in discrimination and conduct that would discourage mortgage applications from prospective applicants who are residents of or seeking credit in majority Black and Hispanic census tracts” located in its northern New Jersey assessment area.  In entering the more than $13 million settlement, the Bank did not admit to any of the DOJ’s allegations.  It agreed to various requirements to strengthen its fair lending compliance program, including investing in a loan subsidy fund, opening additional branches, and expanding its CRA assessment area.

The FDIC’s Findings

What is curious, however, is that in its latest CRA performance evaluation, the FDIC determined that Lakeland “exhibits a good record of serving the credit needs of the most economically disadvantaged areas of its assessment area, low-income individuals, and/or very small businesses, consistent with safe and sound banking practices.”  It determined that there is in fact strong competition for lending in the area, but that the bank nonetheless showed good penetration to borrowers of low- and moderate-income levels and in low- and moderate-income areas.  Further, the FDIC determined that the bank “makes extensive use of innovative and/or flexible lending practices in order to serve assessment area credit needs,” noting that the bank’s programs provide lower down payments, lower interest rates, down payment assistance, first-time homebuyer programs, and unsecured small dollar loan programs, for lower-income individuals and small businesses.  The FDIC also called Lakeland “a leader in making community development loans.”  In fact, Lakeland received a rating of “Outstanding,” the highest rating which only a small number of banks achieve, in each of its CRA exams for more than a decade.

CRA versus Fair Lending Laws

The rub is that the CRA is not a fair lending statute, as it focuses on income disparity and not racial disparity, though it often goes hand in glove with the fair lending laws.  For example, a failure to comply with fair lending laws (e.g., the Fair Housing Act, ECOA/Regulation B) can result in a downgrade of a bank’s CRA rating, despite its satisfactory or better performance in its CRA evaluation.  The CRA is enforced by the OCC, FDIC, and Federal Reserve Board.  The fair lending laws are typically enforced by the OCC, FDIC, Federal Reserve, CFPB, NCUA, FTC, and HUD (along with state regulators).  The threshold for an agency’s referral to DOJ for enforcement proceedings is low, requiring reason to believe there is a pattern or practice of discrimination.


In practice, the Lakeland settlement shows how a bank can be susceptible to fair lending risk with respect to redlining, and yet still pass its (anti-redlining) CRA examination with flying colors.  Maybe that is a reason to revise the CRA regulations (spoiler alert: that’s already in the works).  Or maybe it is a reminder to banks to mind the forest and the trees.  Focusing on CRA is necessary but not sufficient, and a bank needs to ensure it is regularly monitoring its lending activity for potential redlining.

State Community Reinvestment Acts Reaching Beyond Banks

A&B ABstract:

When Congress passed the federal Community Reinvestment Act (“CRA”) in 1977 to address redlining, it imposed affirmative requirements on insured depository institutions to serve the credit needs of the communities where they receive deposits. At that time, banks were extending the vast majority of mortgages nationally. However, non-banks have become the dominant mortgage lenders, by some estimates accounting for more than two thirds of residential mortgage loans in 2021.

Indeed, the non-bank mortgage market share has been increasing steadily since 2007, when non-banks were originating approximately 20 percent of mortgage loans. That year, Massachusetts became the first state to extend the scope of its state CRA to non-bank mortgage lenders, notwithstanding the proviso of the federal statute that tied credit obligations to depository activities.  Historically, deposits were gathered primarily from areas surrounding bank branches, and thus a bank’s CRA performance responsibilities were likewise focused on those same areas.  But today, both lending and depository activities can be conducted nationally.  In recognition of the more attenuated connection between bank branches serving the credit needs of communities, the Massachusetts CRA became the first state to impose CRA responsibilities on non-bank lenders.

In March 2021, Illinois passed its CRA which also applies beyond banks to non-bank mortgage lenders, followed shortly by New York in November 2021.  (Note that this expansion has not taken mortgage servicers into the fold, as CRA is more focused on an institution’s loan originations and purchases than its loan servicing.)  Relatedly, other state CRA statutes apply to credit unions and banks, though not to other financial institutions.  Below is a brief update on where various state CRAs currently stand:

  • Connecticut.  Connecticut’s CRA initially applied only to banks but was amended in 2001 to cover state credit unions as well.  It does not cover any other financial institutions, however.  Its provisions are similar to the federal CRA.
  • District of Columbia.  The District of Columbia’s CRA applies to deposit-receiving institutions, which includes federal, state, or District-chartered banks, savings institutions, and credit unions.  It is also similar to the federal CRA.
  • Illinois.  The Illinois CRA applies to financial institutions, which includes state banks, credit unions, and non-bank mortgage entities that are licensed under the state’s Residential Mortgage Lending Act that lent or originated 50 or more residential mortgage loans in the previous calendar year.  Following the expansion of its CRA (205 ILCS 735) last year, Illinois solicited comments and facilitated roundtables to assist the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in developing rulemaking for non-bank entities. In particular, the Department’s August 31, 2021 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sought comment on whether the assessment areas of these non-bank entities should include the entire state of Illinois.  Importantly, the Department has referenced the potential suitability of either the federal CRA rules or Massachusetts’ CRA rules as a model for Illinois.  No proposed rule has been published as of the date of this writing.
  • Massachusetts.  Despite mortgage lender concerns raised today regarding the feasibility and inapplicability of different elements of the general CRA examination framework, Massachusetts has imposed meaningful CRA requirements on non-bank lenders for more than a decade.  Indeed, Massachusetts has succeeded in implementing and conducting separate CRA examination processes for banks and non-banks. Yet despite this distinction, Massachusetts CRA exams for mortgage companies remain rigorous.
  • New York.  In November last year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation (S.5246-A/A.6247-A) to expand the scope of the state’s CRA to cover non-bank mortgage lenders. Specifically, the legislation creates a new section, 28-bb of the New York Banking Law, that requires non-depository lenders to “meet the credit needs of local communities.” Further, section 28-bb provides for an assessment of lender performance by the Superintendent that considers the activities conducted by the lender to ascertain the credit needs of its community, along with the extent of the lender’s marketing, special programs, and participation in community outreach, educational programs, and subsidized housing programs. This assessment also may consider the geographic distribution of the lender’s loan applications and originations; the lender’s record of office locations and service offerings; and any evidence of discriminatory conduct, including any practices intended to discourage prospective loan applicants.  The provisions of section 28-bb will go into effect on November 1, 2022.

Worth noting also is that while these state CRAs are generally aligned with the federal CRA requirements, the regulations implementing the federal CRA are expected to change.  The Federal Reserve Board, FDIC, and OCC are currently working on promulgating a modernized interagency CRA framework.  Once the federal CRA regulations change, the state CRAs may follow or risk subjecting their banks and any other covered financial institutions to the burden of complying with two different regulatory regimes.


Much like in Massachusetts, non-bank lenders originating a significant number of loans in Illinois and New York should be developing a CRA compliance strategy that makes sense for their size and business model to comply with the state CRAs.  That said, all non-bank lenders would do well to contemplate whether Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York are a harbinger of what is to come.  Finally, state CRA covered financial institutions in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York should be planning for potential compliance framework shifts once the federal CRA regulations are revised.

Modern-Day Redlining Enforcement: A New Baseline

On October 22, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an aggressive new initiative, in collaboration with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout the country, to combat the practice of redlining. Three days prior, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was said to be hiring up to 30 new enforcement attorneys to focus on redlining and other fair lending enforcement. While these developments are not surprising for an Administration that has emphasized the importance of promoting racial equity, particularly in homeownership, this swift and purposeful action by federal regulators signals that these agencies mean business. Indeed, as evidence of this new priority, federal regulatory agencies have issued two multimilliondollar redlining settlements against financial institutions just in the past two months.

Since the early 1990s, federal regulatory agencies have recognized redlining as a type of illegal “disparate treatment” (i.e., intentional) discrimination that violates federal fair lending laws such as the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). For example, in 2009, the agencies defined the term “redlining” as a form of disparate treatment discrimination where a lender provides unequal access to credit, or unequal terms of credit, because of the race, color, national origin, or other protected characteristic of the residents of the area where the credit seeker resides or will reside or where the residential property to be mortgaged is located. As recently as 2019, the DOJ continued to use the term “redlining” to refer to a practice whereby “lenders intentionally avoid providing services to individuals living in predominantly minority neighborhoods because of the race of the residents in those neighborhoods.”

To that end, the earliest redlining enforcement actions were brought against banks whose alleged intent to discriminate could be the only explanation for the bank’s geographic distribution of loans around, but not in, minority communities. As proof of a bank’s intent to discriminate, the DOJ produced brightly colored maps to support its position that a bank had unnaturally drawn its service area boundaries to circumvent minority neighborhoods from its mortgage lending and then painstakingly adhered to this “red line” to avoid serving these neighborhoods. In Atlanta, one bank allegedly drew a red line down the railroad tracks that divided the city’s white and black neighborhoods, while in the District of Columbia, another bank allegedly drew its own line down the 16th Street corridor. Years later, in Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, still other banks were alleged to have served a virtual “horseshoe” encompassing white neighborhoods while carving out minority neighborhoods. And again, in Indianapolis, a bank allegedly drew an “Indy Donut” that encircled and excluded the minority areas in the center of the city. In these cases, given that the banks were required by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to define the areas they intended to serve, the DOJ pointed to the banks’ use of different, and in some cases, oddly shaped, service area boundaries (as opposed to existing legal borders or contiguous political subdivisions) as evidence of intent to discriminate.

Today, the majority of mortgage loans in the United States are made by nonbank mortgage lenders that, while not subject to the CRA’s requirements, remain bound by the antidiscrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act and ECOA. In lieu of maps and service area boundaries, federal regulators now look to the loan application and origination data reported by the lender under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) as the starting point for a redlining investigation. If the HMDA data suggests that a mortgage lender’s generation of mortgage loan applications or originations in majority-minority census tracts might not be as strong as that of its “peers” (e.g., similarly sized competitors), a federal regulator may initiate an investigation to determine whether the lender has violated fair lending laws. Of course, because data about “racial imbalance” has been deemed by the U.S. Supreme Court to be insufficient for establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, a federal regulator must supplement the data with evidence that the lender’s arguably weaker performance in minority neighborhoods may have resulted from an intent to discriminate by excluding or otherwise treating those areas differently.

Recently, however, the evidence cited by federal regulators to establish redlining has evolved and expanded significantly. Specifically, regulators appear to be relying on a “discouragement” theory of redlining that looks at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a reasonable person would have been discouraged from applying for a loan product or service – perhaps regardless of whether the lender intended to discriminate. It is worth noting that this theory derives from ECOA’s implementing regulation, Regulation B, which extends the statute’s protections to “potential” applicants, and is not found in the language of ECOA itself.[1] While a lender is prohibited by Regulation B from making discouraging oral or written statements to an applicant on the basis of race or other protected characteristic, long-standing federal agency guidance indicates that a finding of discouragement necessarily requires some evidence of differential treatment on a prohibited basis. Traditional examples of discouragement have included the use of phrases such as “no children” or “no wheelchairs” or “Hispanic residence,” or a statement that an applicant “should not bother to apply.” In contrast, recent redlining enforcement suggests that federal regulators may be interested in the multitude of factors that could have contributed to a lender’s observed failure to reach minority neighborhoods, which, when taken together, may prove the lender’s intent to discriminate.

For example, federal regulators appear to be scrutinizing a lender’s marketing efforts and strategies to determine whether the lender has sufficiently prioritized minority areas. Prior to 2020, redlining cases highlighted the lender’s alleged failure to market in minority areas by intentionally treating these areas differently, either by allegedly excluding such areas from any marketing campaigns or using different marketing materials, such as solicitations or offers, for white versus minority areas.[2] The most recent redlining cases, however, suggest that lenders’ marketing strategies might need to go beyond treating white and minority neighborhoods consistently. Specifically, in its summer 2021 Supervisory Highlights, the CFPB called out a lender that had engaged in redlining by marketing via “direct mail marketing campaigns that featured models, all of whom appeared to be non-Hispanic white” and using only “headshots of its mortgage professionals in its open house marketing materials … who appeared to be non-Hispanic white.” Notably, the CFPB did not indicate that the lender had marketed to, and conducted open houses in, white neighborhoods while excluding minority neighborhoods, nor that the lender had used different marketing materials for white versus minority neighborhoods. Rather, the CFPB’s claim effectively acknowledges that residents of minority neighborhoods would have received the same marketing materials as any other neighborhood. Yet the CFPB’s position appears to be that the use of white models and white employees in these otherwise neutral marketing materials would have discouraged a prospective applicant in a minority area, regardless of whether the lender intended to discourage anyone or not.

Indeed, recent redlining enforcement suggests that not only will regulators allege it insufficient to treat all applicants and neighborhoods the same, but a lender must undertake affirmative action to specifically target minority neighborhoods. This approach attempts to impose unprecedented, CRA-like obligations on nonbank mortgage lenders to proactively meet the needs of specific neighborhoods or communities and ensure a strong HMDA data showing – or else be subject to redlining enforcement. For example, the July 2020 complaint filed by the CFPB against Townstone Financial Inc. claimed that the lender had “not specifically targeted any marketing toward African-Americans.” Along the same vein, the August 2021 settlement between the DOJ, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and a bank in the Southeast resolved allegations that the lender had failed to “direct” or “train” its loan officers “to increase their sources of referrals from majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.” Of course, lenders understand that “specifically targeting” prospective customers or neighborhoods on the basis of race or other protected characteristic is not required by, and may present its own risk under, fair lending laws. Indeed, the CFPB has suggested that the industry might benefit from “clarity” of how to use “affirmative advertising” in a compliant manner. Similarly, the CFPB’s allegation that Townstone had “not employ[ed] an African-American loan officer during the relevant period, even though it was aware that hiring a loan officer from a particular racial or ethnic group could increase the number of applications from members of that racial or ethnic group” was not only irrelevant since the lender’s main source of marketing was mass market radio advertisements but also presumptive and problematic from an employment-law perspective.

Setting aside the legal questions raised by this expanded approach to redlining, mortgage lenders will also face practical considerations when assessing potential fair lending risk. Given the mortgage industry’s extensive use of social media, lead generation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies to carry out marketing strategies and disseminate marketing material, an inquiry by a federal regulator into potential discouragement of certain applicant groups or areas could be endless. Could every statement or omission made by an employee on any form of media be relevant to a redlining investigation? How many statements or omissions would it take for a federal regulator to conclude that a lender has engaged in intentional, differential treatment based on race or other protected characteristic? To that end, could personal communications between employees, which are not seen by the public, and thus could not have the effect of discouraging anyone from applying for a loan, nevertheless be sought by a federal regulator to further a case of intentional discrimination? The language of recent redlining cases suggests that a regulator may find these communications relevant to a redlining investigation even if they do not concern prospective applicants.

Ultimately, both federal regulators and mortgage industry participants must work together to promote homeownership opportunities in minority areas. But along the way, a likely point of contention will be whether enforcement should be imposed on a lender’s alleged failure to develop and implement targeted marketing strategies to increase business from minority areas, such as expanding the lender’s physical presence to minority areas not within reasonable proximity to the lender’s existing offices, conducting marketing campaigns directed exclusively at minority areas, and recruiting minority loan officers for the specific purpose of increasing business in minority areas. Such an approach might overstate the meaningfulness of physical presence and face-to-face interaction in the digital age, when lenders rely heavily on their online presence.

Of course, there may be legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reasons for a lender’s chosen approach to its operations and expansion. It remains to be seen whether those reasons will be sufficient to assure a federal regulator that the lender’s arguably weak performance in a minority area was not the result of redlining. However, given that nearly all precedent regarding redlining has been set by consent orders and has yet to be tested in the courts, the outcome of any particular investigation will greatly depend on the lender’s willingness to delve into these issues.

[1] See 12 CFR § 1002.4(b), Comment 4(b)-1: “the regulation’s protections apply only to persons who have requested or received an extension of credit,” but extending these protections to prospective applicants is “in keeping with the purpose of the Act – to promote the availability of credit on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

[2] For example, the Interagency Fair Lending Examination Procedures identify the following as “indicators of potential disparate treatment”: advertising only in media serving nonminority areas, using marketing programs or procedures for residential loan products that exclude one or more regions or geographies that have significantly higher percentages of minority group residents than does the remainder of the assessment or marketing area, and using mailing or other distribution lists or other marketing techniques for prescreened or other offerings of residential loan products that explicitly exclude groups of prospective borrowers or exclude geographies that have significantly higher percentages of minority group residents than does the remainder of the marketing area.