The History of Lending Discrimination

Systemic racism still bolsters the racial wealth gap

Laws today protect borrowers from discriminatory lending practices, but that wasn’t always the case. For decades U.S. banks denied mortgages to Black families—and those belonging to other racial and ethnic minority groups—who lived in certain areas “redlined” by a federal government agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC).

Key Takeaways

  • Lending discrimination occurs when lenders base credit decisions on factors other than the applicant’s creditworthiness.
  • Denying financial services to residents of certain neighborhoods due to race or ethnicity is called redlining.
  • The discriminatory practice of redlining made it impossible for many members of racial and ethnic minority groups to qualify for mortgage loans.
  • Redlining is one factor behind the racial wealth gap that persists in the U.S. today.
  • Laws today forbid discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, familial status, age, and whether you receive public assistance income.
The History of Lending Discrimination

Investopedia / Sabrina Jiang

What Is Lending Discrimination?

Lending discrimination happens when lenders base credit decisions on factors other than the borrower’s creditworthiness, including any of the protected classes defined under federal law. Today, three federal laws offer protection against lending discrimination:

  1. The Fair Housing Act (FHA)
  2. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)
  3. The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA)

Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968

In 1948, the Supreme Court deemed racially restrictive deed covenants unenforceable. Twenty years later, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) was enacted. The Act protects people from discrimination when they rent or buy a home, get a mortgage, seek housing assistance, or engage in other housing-related activities. It forbids discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation), familial status, or disability during any part of a residential real estate transaction.

Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) of 1974

Discriminatory lending and housing practices continued despite the Fair Housing Act, and civil rights groups advocated for more legislation. In 1974 Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). According to the Federal Trade Commission, the ECOA “makes it illegal for creditors to discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or because all (or part) of a person’s income comes from public assistance.”

Creditors can ask for some of this information, but they can’t use it to deny you credit or establish the terms of your credit. For example, lenders can ask if you receive alimony or child support, but only if you need the income to qualify for the loan.

Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977

Even with the FHA and ECOA, redlining continued in low-to-moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods. In its discussion of this period, the website Federal Reserve History notes, “There is some evidence that overt discrimination in mortgage lending persisted.”

A few things happened as a result:

  • Illinois became the first state to pass a law prohibiting redlining and required banks to disclose their lending practices.
  • Congress passed the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which required banks to disclose the location of financed properties and borrowers’ race and gender.
  • President Carter signed into law the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was enacted to prevent redlining and to encourage banks and savings associations to help meet the credit needs of all segments of their communities, including LMI neighborhoods. The act directed federal regulatory agencies to “(1) assess the institution’s record of meeting the credit needs of its entire community, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods; and (2) take such record into account in its evaluation of an application for a deposit facility by such institution.”

What Is Redlining?

Before laws expressly prohibited discrimination in lending, a practice known as “redlining” prevented certain populations from accessing credit. Redlining is the discriminatory practice of denying financial services to residents of certain neighborhoods due to race or ethnicity.

Sociologist John McKnight coined the term in the 1960s to describe maps that marked racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods in red, labeling them “hazardous” to lenders. The maps were created by a federal agency, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC).

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC)

During the late 1930s, the HOLC—a federal agency—was created under the New Deal. The New Deal was a series of programs enacted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt intended to help the U.S. recover from the Great Depression. The HOLC drafted “Residential Security” maps of major cities as part of its City Survey Program.

To create the maps, HOLC examiners classified neighborhoods on a “perceived level of lending risk” based on information they gathered from local appraisers, bank loan officers, city officials, and real estate agents. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the examiners graded the neighborhoods based on factors including:

  • The age and condition of the housing
  • Access to transportation
  • The closeness of popular amenities such as parks
  • Proximity to undesirable properties such as polluting industries
  • The residents’ economic class and employment status
  • The residents’ ethnic and racial composition

The neighborhoods were color-coded on maps, with each color representing the area’s perceived risk to lenders.

HOLC Maps Used in Redlining
Color Grade HOLC Description
Green A “Best” HOLC described A areas as “‘hot spots’…where good mortgage lenders with available funds are willing to make their maximum loans…—perhaps up to 75-80% of appraisal.”
Blue B “Still Desirable”  HOLC described B areas as “still good” but not as “‘hot’ as A areas.” “They are neighborhoods where good mortgage lenders will have a tendency to hold commitments 10-15% under the limit,” or around 65% of appraisal. 
Yellow C “Definitely Declining” C neighborhoods were characterized by “obsolescence [and] infiltration of lower grade population.” “Good mortgage lenders are more conservative in Third grade or C areas and hold commitments under the lending ratio for the A and B areas.”
Red D “Hazardous” HOLC described D areas as “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.” It recommended lenders “refuse to make loans in these areas [or] only on a conservative basis.”

Neighborhoods with predominantly racial and ethnic minority populations were colored red—hence, “redlined.” These areas were considered high risk for lenders. According to the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project, “Conservative, responsible lenders, in HOLC judgment, would refuse to make loans in these areas [or] only on a conservative basis.”

A Tool for Discrimination

The HOLC maps were a tool for widespread discrimination. Would-be homeowners in certain areas found it difficult or impossible to get a mortgage because capital was directed to White families living in green and blue neighborhoods—away from Black and immigrant families in yellow and red communities. The few loans that were available in redlined areas were very expensive, which made it even harder to buy a home and build wealth.

Unable to get regular mortgages, people of color who wanted to own a house were forced to resort to exploitatively priced housing contracts that massively increased the cost of housing and gave them no equity until their last payment was delivered. Chicago's Contract Buyers League was formed in the 1960s by a group of inner-city residents to fight these practices.

With nearly 65% of its neighborhoods marked in red, Macon, Ga., was the most redlined city in the U.S.

HOLC map of Macon, Ga.
Image source: Mapping Inequality.

Here’s a list of the 10 cities with the most neighborhoods marked “hazardous” in the 1930s, per a National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) study as reported by the informational website NextCity.com.

  1. Macon, Ga., 64.99%
  2. Birmingham, Ala., 63.91%
  3. Wichita, Kan., 63.87%
  4. Springfield, Mo., 60.19%
  5. Augusta, Ga., 58.70%
  6. Columbus, Ga., 57.98%
  7. Newport News, Va., 57.51%
  8. Muskegon, Mich., 57.24
  9. Flint, Mich., 54.19%
  10. Montgomery, Ala., 53.11%

Economic and Racial Segregation From Redlining Persists

The immediate effect of redlining was that residents in racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods couldn’t access capital to improve their housing (to buy or renovate) or for other economic opportunities. Of course, the impacts of redlining didn’t magically end when the FHA was passed in 1968. Instead, as a 2018 study by the NCRC shows, the economic and racial segregation created by redlining persists in many cities today.

  • 74% of neighborhoods that HOLC graded as “hazardous” more than 80 years ago are low-to-moderate income (LMI) today.
  • 64% of the hazardous-graded areas are racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods.
HOLC graded cities
Image source: Mapping Inequality.

By comparison, 91% of areas deemed “best” in the 1930s remain middle-to-upper income (MUI) in 2022, and 85% are still predominantly white.

The median net worth of Black families is about 10% of that of white families; Latinx/Hispanic families’ median net worth is about 12%.

According to the Mapping Inequality project of the University of Richmond, “As homeownership was arguably the most significant means of intergenerational wealth building in the United States in the twentieth century, these redlining practices from eight decades ago had long-term effects in creating wealth inequalities that we still see today.”

Effects of Discriminatory Lending

Redlining is one factor behind the persistent racial wealth gap in the U.S. And even though discriminatory lending practices are prohibited under the FHA, ECOA, and CRA, Black borrowers and those from other racial and ethnic minority groups remain at a disadvantage. Here are a few of the lingering effects of redlining.

Higher Interest Rates

An analysis of nearly seven million 30-year mortgages by the University of California at Berkeley found that Black and Latinx/Hispanic applicants were charged 0.08% higher interest rates compared with White borrowers, costing them $765 million in extra interest per year.

Lower Loan Approval Rates

A yearlong study by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting (based on 31 million records) found a pattern of denials for people of color across the U.S. It showed that Black applicants were turned away at “significantly higher rates” than white applicants in 48 cities, Latinx/Hispanic applicants in 25, Asian applicants in nine, and Native American applicants in three. Reveal found that all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a mortgage in Washington, D.C. The analysis was independently reviewed and confirmed by the Associated Press.

Lower Homeownership Rates

Discrimination has led to the racial homeownership gap in the U.S. The national homeownership rate for Black families is 44.7%, compared to 74.0% for white families, according to Q1 2022 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lower Personal Wealth

According to a report from real estate firm Redfin, the typical homeowner in previously redlined neighborhoods has gained 52% less—or $212,023 less—in personal wealth from property value increases than homeowners in greenlined areas.

Corporate Redlining

Discrimination goes beyond mortgage lending. A 2020 article from The Business Journals found that White neighborhoods receive roughly twice as much per person in small-business loans compared with Black neighborhoods. Similarly, predominantly White neighborhoods receive, on average, about twice as many small-business loans per capita.

The report also notes that, since peaking before the 2008 financial crisis, the number of loans made to Black-owned businesses through the Small Business Association's 7(a) program decreased by 84%, compared to a 53% drop in 7(a) loans awarded overall.

The decline came despite other positive trends, including a 48% growth in the economy, an 82% rise in commercial loans, and a 101% increase in bank deposits. Orv Kimbrough, Chair and CEO at Midwest BankCentre, calls this disparity "corporate redlining."

Here are a few other key findings that provide evidence of discrimination in small-business lending:

  • A review by The New York Times showed that 75% of the government's initial round of Paycheck Protection Program loans went to businesses in majority-White census tracts.
  • Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan, and Wells Fargo—the nation's four largest banks—made 91% fewer 7(a) loans to Black-owned businesses in 2019 than in 2007.
  • Black businesses got 3% of 7(a) loan dollars in 2019, despite 9.5% of U.S. businesses being Black-owned, according to the Census Bureau.

Discrimination, whether seen in mortgage or small-business lending, has lasting effects. "When you don't invest, you get social problems, you get crime, less education, all of which reduces the chances of people climbing the social and economic ladder," said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies wealth creation and race.

Negative Outcomes of Lending Discrimination

Lending practices have gradually become more equitable in the U.S. But more equitable is not equal. The residual effects of redlining—and ongoing discrimination against people of color today—continue to bolster the country’s racial wealth divide. Three-quarters of neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s continue to struggle economically today and are much more likely than other communities to house lower-income, racial and ethnic minority residents. They are also more likely to be the target of subprime and predatory lenders.

There are other enduring negative outcomes, too. A 2020 study by researchers at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, and the University of Richmond found that "the history of redlining, segregation, and disinvestment not only reduced minority wealth, it impacted health and longevity, resulting in a legacy of chronic disease and premature death in many high minority neighborhoods." One sobering impact: Life expectancy is 3.6 years lower in redlined communities than in communities of the same age that had received high grades from the HOLC.

If You Experience Lending Discrimination

Mortgage applicants and homebuyers who believe they have been discriminated against should contact the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Small business owners who believe they have been discriminated against based on race, sex, or other protected category can submit a lending discrimination complaint online with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

What Is Redlining?

Redlining is the now-illegal discriminatory practice of denying credit to residents of certain areas based on their race or ethnicity. The term was coined by sociologist John McKnight in the 1960s to describe the Home Owners' Loan Corporation's maps that marked racial and ethnic minority neighborhoods in red, labeling them “hazardous” to lenders.

Does Redlining Happen Today?

Redlining is illegal now. But the redlining that occurred in the past still significantly contributes to the racial wealth gap that persists today.

What Are the U.S. Fair Lending Laws?

Fair lending laws in the U.S. prohibit lenders from discriminating based on specific protected classes (such as race, color, national origin, and religion) during any aspect of a credit transaction.

What Are the 3 Types of Lending Discrimination?

Federal law recognizes three types of lending discrimination. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), they include:

  • Overt discrimination—when a lender blatantly discriminates based on a prohibited basis.
  • Disparate treatment—when a lender treats applicants differently based on one of the prohibited factors.
  • Disparate impact—when a lender applies a practice uniformly to all applicants, but the practice has a discriminatory effect on a prohibited basis and is not justified by business necessity.

What Is the Racial Wealth Gap?

The racial wealth gap describes the difference or imbalance of assets owned by different racial or ethnic groups. It reflects the generations-long inequality in access to financial and educational opportunities, income, and resources.

Article Sources

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