Wells Fargo accused of predatory lending in Chicago area

Wells Fargo & Co. targets black and Latino borrowers for more costly home loans than their white counterparts in the Chicago area, helping to prolong a local and national foreclosure crisis, the biggest county in Illinois said.

Cook County, which has a population of more than 5 million and includes the third-biggest U.S. city, accused the bank of engaging in predatory lending in a complaint filed Friday in Chicago federal court, following similar efforts by governments in Los Angeles and Miami.

The bank’s tactics start at home-loan origination and continue through refinancing and foreclosure, the country said, a process its lawyers summarized in the complaint as “equity stripping.” The process may have involved as many as 26,000 loans, the county said.

“Equity stripping is an abusive form of ‘asset based lending’ that maximizes lender profits based on the value of the underlying asset and onerous loan terms, while in disregard for a borrower’s ability to repay,” according to the complaint.

Aimed also at minority women, the bank’s fee structure and its practice of bundling mortgages to sell as securities allowed the lender to make money off loans even in the event of a foreclosure, the county said.

The county is seeking a court order halting the practice and money damages that may exceed $300 million.

Chris Hammond, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based lender, declined to comment on the complaint.

Wells Fargo also faces a lawsuit by the federal government over its mortgage lending.

In recent years cities including Los Angeles and Miami filed similar suits, with mixed results, pursuing cases as lenders seek to move on from U.S. probes into their mortgage practices. Allegations have included “red-lining” minority areas to block loans and failing to tell investors about the health of mortgages that were bundled and sold.

The cities sought damages from the banks for lost property-tax revenue and increased municipal services stemming from foreclosures that they said resulted from discriminatory lending. The banks knew the loans were likely to fail and issued them anyway, the cities have claimed.

In July, Wells Fargo won dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Miami claiming it flooded minority neighborhoods with predatory mortgages before the housing bubble burst. A judge said the city wasn’t eligible to bring claims under the Fair Housing Act and filed the case too late. That decision is being appealed.

A few months earlier, before a federal judge in Los Angeles, Wells Fargo lost a bid for dismissal of that city’s almost identical claims. The judge said Los Angeles was legally qualified to file fair-housing lawsuits.

Bank of America Corp. in August reached a $16.7 billion global settlement with U.S. regulators alleging wrongdoing in mortgage practices.