The Trillion-Dollar Bank Shakedown That Bodes Ill for Cities
The Clinton administration has turned the Community Reinvestment Act, a once-obscure and lightly enforced banking regulation law, into one of the most powerful mandates
shaping American cities—and, as Senate Banking Committee chairman Phil Gramm memorably put it, a vast extortion scheme against the nation's banks. Under its provisions, U.S. banks have committed nearly $1 trillion for inner-city and low-income mortgages and real estate development projects, most of it funneled through a nationwide network of left-wing community groups
, intent, in some cases, on teaching their low-income clients that the financial system is their enemy and, implicitly, that government, rather than their own striving, is the key to their well-being.
The CRA's premise sounds unassailable: helping the poor buy and keep homes will stabilize and rebuild city neighborhoods. As enforced today, though, the law portends just the opposite, threatening to undermine the efforts of the upwardly mobile poor by saddling them with neighbors more than usually likely to depress property values by not maintaining their homes adequately or by losing them to foreclosure. The CRA's logic also helps to ensure that inner-city neighborhoods stay poor by discouraging the kinds of investment that might make them better off.
The Act, which Jimmy Carter signed in 1977
, grew out of the complaint that urban banks were "redlining" inner-city neighborhoods, refusing to lend to their residents while using their deposits to finance suburban expansion. CRA decreed that banks have "an affirmative obligation" to meet the credit needs of the communities in which they are chartered...
This policy—"America's best mortgage program for working people," NACA calls it—is an experiment with extraordinarily high risks
. There is no surer way to destabilize a neighborhood than for its new generation of home buyers to lack the means to pay their mortgages—which is likely to be the case for a significant percentage of those granted a no-down-payment mortgage based on their low-income
classification rather than their good credit history. Even if such buyers do not lose their homes, they are a group more likely to defer maintenance on their properties, creating the problems that lead to streets going bad and neighborhoods going downhill. Stable or increasing property values grow out of the efforts of many; one unpainted house, one sagging porch, one abandoned property is a threat to the work of dozens, because such signs of neglect discourage prospective buyers.
A no-down-payment policy reflects a belief that poor families should qualify for home ownership because they are poor
, in contrast to the reality that some poor families are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to own property, and some are not.
Even without a no-down-payment policy, the pressure on banks to make CRA-related loans may be leading to foreclosures. Though bankers generally cheerlead for CRA out of fear of being branded racists if they do not
, the CEO of one midsize bank grumbles that 20 percent of his institution's CRA-related mortgages, which required only $500 down payments, were delinquent in their very first year
, and probably 7 percent will end in foreclosure. "The problem with CRA," says an executive with a major national financial-services firm, "is that banks will simply throw money at things because they want that CRA rating."
Looking into the future gives further cause for concern: "The bulk of these loans," notes a Federal Reserve economist, "have been made during a period in which we have not experienced an economic downturn."