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Foreclosed homes in non-white areas get fewer repairs, complaint says

Baltimore was the worst of three cities cited in discrimination allegations against Fannie Mae contractor Cyprexx

cyprexx baltimore

Weeds and crumbling cement at a vacant Baltimore foreclosure property cited in the complaint.

Photo by: National Fair Housing Alliance

A national housing advocacy group looking at vacant foreclosed homes being maintained by Fannie Mae contractor Cyprexx Services LLC say there are stark and systematic differences, comparing the company’s performance in white vs. non-white neighborhoods.

“You rarely see a boarded-up window in a white neighborhood,” said Shanna L. Smith, of National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), which has filed a four-state complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against Florida-based Cyprexx. The properties may be vacant, she said, but they are well-kept.

By contrast, in non-white areas, the group found not only boarded windows but weeds, dead shrubs and tall grass, unsecured doors, broken steps and railings, holes, vermin and piles of trash. The trend was most pronounced in Baltimore, although the group also looked at Kansas City, Orlando, Fla., and Richmond, Va.

Of the 20 Baltimore vacant properties in black neighborhoods in the study, 16 had dead or overgrown shrubbery. Only one of the Cyprexx properties in  white neighborhoods did. (Source: National Fair Housing Alliance.)

Of the 20 Baltimore vacant properties in black neighborhoods in the study, 16 had dead or overgrown shrubbery. Only one of the Cyprexx properties in white neighborhoods did. (Source: National Fair Housing Alliance.)

“They were clearly at the top of the list,” Smith said.

Asset Protection and Curb Appeal

The complaint, filed yesterday, alleges that Cyprexx violated the Fair Housing Act by maintaining Fannie Mae-owned or controlled Real-Estate-Owned properties (REOs) in a state of disrepair in predominantly African-American, Latino or other non-white communities, while maintaining them in predominantly white communities in materially better condition.

In predominantly white Pasadena, the foreclosed vacant properties looked like this. (Source: National Fair Housing Alliance)

In predominantly white Pasadena, the foreclosed vacant properties looked like this. (Source: National Fair Housing Alliance)

Phone calls and an email to Cyprexx were not returned.

Smith said her group, which last year filed similar complaints against two other Fannie Mae contractors – Safeguard Properties and Asset Management Specialists – is holding Cyprexx to its minimal obligations under federal law.

“We’re not talking granite counter-tops,” she said in an interview with The Brew.

“We’re talking about basic maintenance . . . maintaining the asset and curb appeal.”

“It’s mowing the lawns. Making sure the gutters and downspouts are clear so water doesn’t back up and cause roof damage,” Smith continued, calling the matter “a business issue as well as a civil rights issue.”

A Study in Black and White

In Baltimore, the group investigated 26 Fannie Mae properties in the city and suburbs serviced by Cyprexx – including 20 in predominantly African-American communities and six in communities that were predominantly white. They conducted their research in 2011, and 2012 and returned a few months ago to confirm it, Smith said.

Among their findings cited in the complaint:

• 33% of properties serviced for Fannie Mae by Cyprexx in predominantly white communities had zero deficiencies, while none of  those investigated in black communities were deficiency-free.

Racial disparities alleged in Baltimore include this from the National Fair Housing Coalition's Power Point.

Racial disparities alleged in Baltimore include this from the National Fair Housing Coalition’s Power Point.

• 75% of  the Fannie Mae/Cyprexx properties in black communities had three or more deficiencies, while only 16% of white communities had more than three documented.

• 30%  in black communities had five or more deficiencies, compared to zero in the white communities.

• 80% of the properties in black areas, or 16 of the 20, had weeds or dead shrubbery, while only one of the properties in white neighborhoods did.

Government’s Responsibility

The National Fair Housing Coalition and its member organizations have been targeting not just Fannie Mae, but other government and private lenders responsible for the nation’s vast inventory of foreclosed homes as a result of the housing market collapse.

The entities they have filed complaints against include Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and U.S. Bank, with some responding better than others, according to Smith.

“Freddie Mac has made improvements – they implemented a new business model,” Smith said. “You can tell a Freddie Mac home now. It has a sign and it’s clean.”

By contrast, she said, Fannie Mae has made few changes.

“We haven’t had a working partnership with them since we filed against Safeguard,” she said. “They haven’t been in communication with us since the spring of 2013. You would think they would be very concerned.”

Last year, Wells Fargo agreed to pay more than $40 million to settle a complaint brought by the group alleging poor maintenance of foreclosed properties in minority neighborhoods.

Smith said city governments could take similar action against lenders and their maintenance contractors. “They could document this. They have the data,” she said. “They have the police fire and rescue calls. They have the nuisance abatement calls.”

Map showing maintenance of Cyprexx-maintained houses in the Baltimore area. (Source: National Fair Housing Coalition)

Map showing Cyprexx-maintained houses in the Baltimore area. (Source: National Fair Housing Coalition)

“Devastating” Impact on Neighborhoods

The impact of vacant blighted foreclosure properties on cities like Baltimore, she said, is huge.

“In neighborhoods that used to have high home ownership, and now you see six, seven, eight boarded-up homes and these banks and Fannie Mae are just not taking care of them and that for the neighbors is just devastating,” Smith said. “Their property values go down, they can’t get loans, they can’t sell their houses.”

Visiting the vacant homes, investigators saw and heard the rats scurrying about in the grass and weeds and heard about the misery of living next-door to one of them from neighbors.

“The neighbors said, ‘Don’t go to the yard, it’s full of fleas,’ but the investigators went anyway – they got all bitten up.”

Asked why she thought contractors cut corners in poor minority neighborhoods, Smith speculated that they believe no one will complain.

“In the white neighborhoods, they get nervous. They think someone might report them to Congress,” Smith said.

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  • Matt

    ” 33% of properties serviced for Fannie Mae by Cyprexx in predominantly white communities … ” feels a little misleading when the sample size is 6

  • davethesuave

    yep, it’s always about race. or it could be about being threatened by a passing youth group (sometimes known as a gang, not always though). or it could be the snarling tortured pit bull next door that gives “paws” (sorry) to the worker who only wants to get the job done and run. or maybe the distressed “homes” are so far beyond repairing that the company gives it their best shot, sees the diminishing returns, and walks away, head shaking. i understand the concept of “you signed a contract, fix the place regardless of its structural damage”. on the other hand, I’ll bet many of these properties were not available for inspection, whether for lack of time or some other reason, and let’s face it, a building gets to a certain stage where it’s just not repairable. or maybe it’s all about race, all the time, everywhere.
    by the way: what ever happened to pride? pride of ownership? pride in appearance? pride in living a decent life, and being decent to those around you? gone by the wayside, and that breakdown in our Great American society knows no color line.

    • Angry_Mike

      it’s hard to take pride when you try to keep your yard clean, and your parking pad constantly fills up with trash that blows down the street. Your concrete slab yard is constantly overrun with weeds from the neighboring vacant (and the neighboring occupied house, to be honest). Your house is damaged by a neighbor who decided his investment wasn’t paying out, and just stopped work. Or your own house, that was built and never inspected, yet the city allowed it’s sale as a primary residence.
      I don’t think it’s a race thing, like people have said, it’s simple numbers. Regardless of the reasoning, it’s something that needs to be fixed. Just because you financed a home in a bad part of town, doesn’t mean you can let it rot because it’s not worth it. if it’s a dog investment, do something about it. i don’t know why doing a bad thing is ok as long as it’s business driven.
      I’ll second carol with the real estate investors holding onto rotting properties. There are i think 10 vacants on my street, and i don’t think any of them are currently bank owned. All are in various states of disrepair, and as far as i know, the city does nothing. in the case of a certain neighboring vacant. the city has allowed it to rot for close to two years in a receivership hearing because the owner has “inention to rehab the property” Sorry, but i have intentions to write a great american novel, that doesn’t mean Penguin needs to give me a $1 million cash advance and hope for the best.

  • Andrew Keimig

    Of course no one blames the people who bought a house they couldn’t afford. What was the condition of these houses when FM took over control of the house? Are they expected to pay for the neglect of the previous owner?

    • James McBee

      Why do you automatically assume that a foreclosure signifies an
      irresponsible borrower? Have you ever been laid off? Do you know anyone who has? Have you ever met anyone who was forced to retire because of injury, or someone who had their savings wiped out by an unforeseen medical emergency? Certainly, in some cases people loose their homes because they couldn’t afford them in the first place, but it is one of the most pernicious lies going around in our society that a slide into poverty is necessarily, or even usually, the result of irresponsible behavior. What is more, why shouldn’t the banks have to have some skin in the game? When you get a mortgage, you have to pay for an appraiser of the bank’s choosing to certify that the home is worth at least what the bank is lending to you. Why then does all the risk belong to the borrower? The bank gets to collect the house as collateral. If that collateral has lost value, it seems to me the bank has made a bad bet, and should bear at least some of the responsibility. Regardless, when the bank seizes a house, they become the owner, so yes, they are responsible for the neglect of the previous owner. If an individual’s home has condition issues that are adversely affecting their neighbors, they aren’t allowed to argue that those issues predate their ownership. Why should it be any different for a corporation? Believe me, I wish I could hold the previous owners of my house responsible for everything they did, or more often didn’t do, but the law doesn’t work that way.

  • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

    26 homes in 2011-2012.

    Compared to thousands across the city, hundreds of which have been vacant blighted messes for years, many owned by dozens of shell LLCs controlled by one or two people. I’m not entirely sure it’s worth getting up in arms about 26 homes, frankly, when we have homegrown neglect that has been largely ignored by local media.

    • James Hunt

      Au contraire: it’s worth it to groups such as NFHA because there’s much more boodle in playing the race card than in, say, suing the maintenance company for non-performance. Indeed, it’s unlikely NFHA would have standing to do the latter.

      Let’s break it down further: 26 homes were “studied”.

      Fourteen of 19 in “black” neighborhoods are 60-70 year old properties in one community, Park Heights, a low income neighborhood that has struggled for decades despite millions in gov’t dollars being pumped into it. In PH, property maintenance ranges from meticulous in a few places to non-existent in many more. If a vacant has trash in the yard or broken windows, it’s likely a “neighbor” was responsible.

      Meanwhile, five of seven in “white” neighborhoods are 10-20 year old properties in or near one community, Pasadena. It’s a middle and upper middle income neighborhood where property maintenance is consistently decent. If a vacant has trash, it’s likely a “neighbor” would pick it up, if only to maintain appearances to preserve his/her property’s value.

      So, no surprise, the study was “garbage in, garbage out” (pun intended) and yet Fannie’s insurance company will no doubt ante up. Another successful shakedown.

  • Day_Star

    This article summary doesn’t address or mention housing value, just neighborhood racial composition. Not to be a smart alec, but such a factor needs to be statistically separated to make a case of prejudice.

    I can see it now: some Fannie Mae asset manager in a cubicle looking at a spread sheet of hundreds of houses — not knowing a thing about the NFHA’s classification of the neighborhood — and deciding to do maintenance on the house assessed at $400K in a neighborhood with higher sales turnover vs.the house assessed at $150K in a low activity market. Maintenance costs are relatively fixed, so the return on investment in up-keeping the more valuable house with higher resale opportunity is that much greater. The poor soles making rational economic decisions are now going to be demonized for it. How right I am is TBD, but that will be the defense and you can bet they’ll have the numbers to defend themselves.

    • ushanellore

      In other words this is accidental, incidental, unintentional racism. Also foreclosures and maintenance of foreclosed homes is a nationwide problem.

      Every time the subliminal is ferreted then defensiveness mushrooms like a cloud. Whatever the underlying reason, however innocuous, it needs to be corrected. Could be the homes in predominantly black neighborhoods were in worse shape and required more intensive efforts to spruce, could be they are of low prop. value, could be they’re only a few in number and could be even that the previous owners should never even have bought what they couldn’t afford.

      Now that FM has repossessed these homes the inequities in maintenance should be corrected. When the subconscious in various weird ways veers toward racism it need to be brought to the conscious and without shame remedied.

      That is what the NHFA is trying to do–let’s hope–and not being fastidious or finicky to justify its own existence. We can always rely on our watchdogs to find something–anything– that will keep their salaries coming but the NHFA is showing statistics and even if unimpressive the matter needs to be redressed.

      • James Hunt

        If it’s “accidental, incidental, unintentional” then it’s not “racism,” or else the word has lost all meaning.

        The trash in the yards of the vacants in Park Heights (and that’s where most studied were) didn’t put itself there, and neither did the windows break themselves. Meanwhile, the houses there are a good half century older than the one’s in the “white” neighborhoods, so maintenance becomes that much more difficult and expensive.

        It will be interesting to follow this case (if Fannie’s insurance company doesn’t fold right away) because I’d bet work logs show crews spend two to three more times on properties in Park Heights than in Pasadena. Take a closer look at the picture above in Pasadena. It’s likely the residents of that row of houses pays one guy to keep all their (narrow) lawns cut and clean.

        • ushanellore

          The residents of that row of houses I believe have foreclosed and gone kaput–paying one guy to cut their grass seems unlikely under the circumstances. Look most people are decent. They don’t mean to be racists and yet can do things that imply racism. Even whiskeyjunkie says he believes in a meritocracy and is no racist although most would dub him one–but that’s neither here nor there.

          White, Black, brown, yellow, red or blue all are complicit in this racism business and yes, it can be subconscious and reflexive or even impulsive. But when it is brought into the open it works itself out. I do agree with you about FM’s insurance company shaking it down. Accuse poor upkeep and demand more premium money. What a clever scheme.

      • KnowNothingParty

        No racism at all – just simple economics.

    • Sean Tully

      I think Day_Star nailed it. It’s not racial, it’s economics. Now, maybe racism is behind why the minority areas are more troubled and it takes houses longer to sell there. But the fact is that the place that will sell the fastest probably gets the most attention. And, I might add, that if a property has trash dumped on it there is a good chance it isn’t coming from racist Real Estate agents or anyone else but those living in the community.

  • ushanellore

    Where is whiskeyjunkie when we need him or her? This is a forum that begs for whiskeyjunkie’s input.

  • Ed

    Probably a matter of community involvement. My mom’s house is in PG and I stayed with her for a few months. The neighborhood has been hit by foreclosures. One house had an overgrown lawn it was bank owned. One morning on my way to work I noticed a white woman standing in the street taking pictures of the house.

    The next day after I came home to work the lawn was mowed. Now it could all be a coincidence. I suspect the lady I saw the day before contacted the bank and gave them the riot act. As a Black person I have to admit we don’t do these type of things often. Unless it’s directly bothering us we don’t care much.

  • KnowNothingParty

    The reason, I suspect, for this has more to do with a neighborhoods resale potential and less to do with race. But this is Baltimore where everything is a racial issue. Foreclosed homes in neighborhoods that will be easier to re sell and make a profit will be kept up better than foreclosed homes in shitty neighborhoods that will most likely not turn a profit.

  • KnowNothingParty

    This is what happens when people are given mortgage loans they probably couldn’t qualify for. But everyone deserves a home.

  • James Hunt

    Racism 24/7/365.

    Parents, beware: even “Thomas the Tank Engine” is racist …

    http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2014/07/by-god-she-can-leap.html

  • Matt R

    Even though it’s hard to make a generalization with only a hand full of properties, I think it might have to do with social class than race. White areas generally have a higher per capita income and with higher income comes higher expectations. If you are brought up in a low income area you are probably used to seeing things a little rougher on the edges and feel that you shouldn’t bother complaining or even know who to approach to make those complaint (for example, if you don’t know how to get the information regarding who owns the property or know how to write a business letter). Things get dealt with when there are complaints. Remember the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

  • halstevens

    I would be interested to know the home ownership rates of the neighborhoods in the study. If a higher percentage of neighbors of the foreclosed homes are owners, they might be more likely to complain to the bank or take other steps to improve the conditions of the foreclosed property. If they are renters, they might not care as much.

  • Shanna Leigh Smith

    Just to clarify for people, we targeted neighborhoods with high home ownership rates. We did not target investor (renter) neighborhoods. The value of the home is actually irrelevant because the point is that Cyprexx is PAID to mow lawns, trim shrubbery, clean up leaves, secure doors and windows, and remove any trash or litter. Cyprexx has a contract with Fannie Mae and is being paid to regularly execute these duties. Neighbors should not have to complain for Cyprexx to do its job. Baltimore has nuisance abatement laws requiring lawns to be mowed, broken windows repaired, doors secured and debris removed. Cyprexx does good work in white middle and working class neighborhoods and it does poor work in middle and working class neighborhoods where the residents are African American. If Cyprexx consistently treated all neighborhoods badly, there would be no claim of discrimination. This is unequal treatment based on the racial composition of the neighborhood and is a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Shanna Smith–President/CEO National Fair Housing Alliance.

    • baltimorebrew

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Shanna. Meanwhile, a reader asks this question over on our Facebook page:
      “How would someone volunteer to donate services?”
      – fs

    • Matt R

      Did you control for the socio-economic composition of the neighborhood? I suspect that might have a strong influence.

    • Krrush

      Agreed that if Cyprexx consistently treated all neighborhoods equally (attentively or neglectfully) there would be no claim of discrimination, but the fact that we’re even talking about “white” and “black” neighborhoods –as if people “naturally” segregate themselves by skin color–means there would still be the problem of structural racism to address. The arguments trying to separate racism from “economics” completely miss this point. Discrimination is only a part of the problem.

    • James Hunt

      This is silly. The houses in Park Heights are significantly older and need way more maintenance than the ones in Pasadena. The trash in the Park Heights houses didn’t land there by itself, nor did the windows break themselves. Even in the pics it’s clear the lawns were cut though weed trees on shared property lines weren’t. You don’t have standing to sue Cyprexx for non-performance of contract (which, at worst, is what’s happening here) so you went after them for “racism.”

      Great. I’m sure you’ll find a sympathetic judge to hear you out and you’ll collect your prize. Meanwhile, in most middle class, homeowner-occupied neighborhoods (black and white) in the US, neighbors will continue to pick up the trash themselves and get after slackers themselves without resorting to the overburdened court system.

      • River Mud

        Further complicating the matter is that from a labor standpoint, we’re talking about very different groups of maintenance workers. The lawn guys (who should be cutting all lawns equally, to the study’s point) do NOT do window or cement repair. The cement repair guys might NOT do handrailings. Take the likelihood that a statistical difference exists between the age of the houses in the w/b areas and that we (all of us) have no clue as to what condition the homes were in when they were surrendered to the bank, and it’s a big muddy mess. But the photos tell the story, at least, of a contractor who is keeping the weeds down in one area, and not another. That’s enough for this to move forward legally.

        • James Hunt

          No doubt the defendants have their own photos.

        • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

          If you look closer at the previous owner of the home on Maple Avenue (before the bank took possession a few weeks ago), my guess is it’s been a mess for quite some time. He doesn’t appear to have a great track record as a landlord or property owner — again, not the bank’s fault.

    • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

      What I find most disturbing about this study, after looking further at one of the homes listed in your exhibits —

      The court didn’t ratify the sale on this property (5343 Maple Avenue in Park Heights) until June of this year, with the final order being
      entered on July the 10th — well after the “study” was completed.
      Technically, the bank, its trustees, or its contractors were under no
      obligation to maintain or otherwise claim responsibility for this
      property until the sale was completed. I am not much for sticking up for banks, or their foreclosure contractors, but facts are facts, and
      shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of proving a point — particularly one
      that may or may not be valid, under closer scrutiny.

      The home was never purchased as a homeowner-occupied property, but was registered as a rental. Out of the 50 homes in the 5300 block of Maple Avenue, only 18 of them are listed as owner-occupied, the rest are rentals.

      • James Hunt

        The discovery process should be interesting (if this case goes that far). What are the addresses of the other houses, particularly the other 13 in Park Heights?

        • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

          I’d love to know that, too.

    • cracker5500

      Please check out Cleveland, Ohio and East Cleveland. I already made a complaint with NFHA and never received a response. Cleveland, Ohio – headquarters for Safeguard Properties – is worse than all of the cities COMBINED. On top of that, our county land bank is giving Safeguard Properties 100’s of FREE houses located in distressed (minority concentrated) areas.

  • J.H

    I think the point everyone is missing is that this company isnt doing their job properly. Having been through these nieghborhoods not all of the houses are “slums”. I think the attitudes expressed in the comments section of this blog explain the reason why areas of baltimore are the way they are. The solution is always to move and just leave it to the wolfs. Moving to Baltimore from the deep south I am shocked at how there is still entrenched segregation, you can call it social-economics but that is just a cover word for black and white. I think that it is shame that people let companies get a pass not do the right thing because it may cost to much. If this was a government entinty people would be up in arms, but because it is a corpration so their actions seemed justified. I am an excecutive at a bank so I am by no means anti-business, however I do think that when you hold everyone accountable things actually get done. I think sometimes the race card is thrown out there way to much, but I think in this case it is a vaild point. Park Hieghts vs. Pasadena, there is no other way to portray it other than black and white. I think the Baltimore Area needs a wake up call; if you don’t invest in the city then the METROPOLITIAN area fails. Look at Kanasas City vs. St Louis a clear example of investing in the city or just flight to the suburbs.

    • James Hunt

      Nonsense on a stick. Racism has nothing to do with it. This is a contract dispute. Either the Cyprexx fulfilled the terms of their contract, or they didn’t. The company hired work crews and told them, you need to have “x” number of houses completed per day, per week, etc., wherever they happen to be.

      Based on the pics provided, it’s clear crews would have to spend a lot more time on houses in Park Heights because they’re older and in worse shape than ones in Pasadena. If Cyprexx failed in performing their contract it’s because they failed to take that into account when they submitted their bid, not because they’re “racist” … the issue is green, not black and white.

      Also, read Carol Ott’s comments: it appears the one house NFHA identified in Park Heights shouldn’t even have been part of this “study.”

      Overusing the term “racism” is like overuse of antibiotics: eventually it will have no effect. We’re getting to that point, thanks to the likes of NFHA.

    • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

      If this company had done anything wrong, I would have been the first person to raise hell about that. However, they didn’t own the home highlighted in the study, located in Park Heights, during the period of the study, and therefore, the burden of maintenance on this home was on the property owner/landlord, and not Cyprexx.

      Going forward, yes — Cyprexx is responsible. But to blame them for the condition of a home they weren’t responsible for, and even worse — to say they neglected the home because of racism, is just so utterly irresponsible (and may I add, probably actionable) I can’t wrap my head around it.

  • petefrombaltimore

    1
    Most of the white neighborhoods in Baltimore city have been gentrified or are in the process of being gentrified. Brooklyn is an exception.And that neighborhood has plenty of boarded up houses. So does predominatly white Pigtown

    But most forclosed houses in areas like Canton and Fed Hill, aren’t boarded up, because they don’t need to be.They generally are high end rehabs, bought by someone who had to forclose.They generally sit for less than a year, before someone buys them. Unlike the burnt out hulks that have sat vacant for years in the poorer parts of Baltimore

    As for contractors, the contractors and investors who work in the poor parts of Baltimore, are almost never the ones who work in Canton and Fed Hill,ect.So its not a case of a contractor acting one way in one neighborhood, and another way in another neighborhood

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