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Cook County sues Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending

Wells Fargo disproportionately targeted minorities with high-cost mortgage loans in Cook County, leading to a foreclosure crisis in the area, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday.

The suit, filed by Cook County, alleges Wells Fargo approved high-cost, high-risk loans for women, Hispanic and African-Americans more often than others. This happened over the past decade, helping fuel many foreclosures in the county’s areas, the suit said.

“The predatory lending crisis has caused tremendous tangible and intangible damage, particularly to African American and Latino communities in Cook County,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement Monday regarding the lawsuit. “Predatory lending continues to exist in Cook County and the lending institutions engaged in such practices must be held accountable.”

Typical mortgage lenders are concerned with proper loan underwriting and the borrower’s ability to repay the loan over time, the suit said. But it alleges that Wells Fargo was interested in more costly mortgage loan products that generate more income for them, but were riskier for borrowers.

As a result, the minority borrowers paid, on average, tens of thousands of dollars more for a loan than others, and were more likely to have pre-payment penalties, credit issues, loan defaults and foreclosure, the suit alleged. This not only burdened borrowers, but forced the county to alleviate areas blighted by foreclosed homes, the suit said.

Wells Fargo and its affiliates are responsible for more than 26,700 foreclosure filings on homeowners in Cook County from January 2000 through August 2014, according to Preckwinkle’s office.

Roughly 18,900 of those filings – or 71 percent – are concentrated in Cook County’s minority neighborhoods even though only 22.6 percent of owner-occupied homes in Cook County are owned by minorities, Preckwinkle’s office said.

Damages could add up to about $300 million, the suit claims.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said the accusations are “baseless.”

“… It’s disappointing they chose to pursue a lawsuit against Wells Fargo rather than collaborate together to help borrowers and homeowners in the County,” Goyda said in a statement.

Wells Fargo has an $8.2 million down payment assistance grant program that is responsible for creating 547 new homeowners in the county over the past two years, Goyda said.

“We will vigorously defend ourselves and continue to focus on helping customers succeed financially and expanding homeownership in Illinois and across the United States,” he added.

The suit demands the alleged discriminatory actions be stopped. The county also seeks an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

Cook County filed similar lawsuits against HSBC North America Holdings, Inc., and against Bank of America earlier this year, Preckwinkle said.