Fla. group protests Bank of America's lending practices

Rob Kuznia, Hispanic Business

Florida activist Al Pina has launched a community campaign against Bank of America over its minority-lending record and practices.

Pina, founder and chairman of the Florida Minority Community Reinvestment Coalition, is staging a hunger strike in protest of what he views to be Bank of America's lack of transparency toward low-income minorities.

He said the bank has a high rate of foreclosures, rising credit-card interest rates and a failure to increase credit for struggling businesses -- all while accepting billions in federal bailout money.

The FMCRC believes the bank's practices violate the spirit of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which was passed to prevent banks from denying loans to people in underserved areas -- a practice known as "redlining."

A bank spokesperson disputes many of the group's charges, insisting, for instance, that Bank of America has received six consecutive "outstanding" Community Reinvestment Act ratings.

Bank of America is the last of the three big banks in Florida that Pina considers unwilling to accept rules of transparency. Since the beginning of 2009, the other two -- Washington Mutual and Wachovia -- have been bought out by Chase bank and Wells Fargo, respectively.

The FMCRC and its supporters are trying to steer minority customers in Florida away from Bank of America and towards Wells Fargo, and in May launched a campaign titled "Wells Fargo YES-Bank of America NO."

Bank of America, however, insists that its record on minority lending practices is commendable.

In a statement to HispanicBusiness.com, Mike Fields, head of Bank of America in Florida, said the bank has an admirable record, despite the FMCRC's claims.

"Bank of America is acutely aware of the needs of minority and low-income communities in Florida and nationwide," he wrote. " In 2005, Bank of America began delivering on its $750 billion community development lending and investment goal. During the first four years, Bank of America delivered more than $35.7 billion in community development lending and investments into low and moderate income and minority communities in Florida."

Florida's Bank of America does give a significantly high percentage to white-run non-profit organizations that help minorities, but the FMCRC says accessibility and transparency are still among the biggest problems related to Bank of America.

For instance, Pina said this spring he met in person with the top executives of both banks. At Chase, that was the top executive, Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon; at Wells Fargo, it was Florida President Shelley Freeman.

Both agreed to allow FCRMC to review bank information once a year so his organization can monitor minority-lending practices. By comparison, Pina said, it took the threat of a hunger strike to persuade Bank of America into granting him a meeting with the Florida leader, Mike Fields, who met with him on June 11.

Despite the meeting, he said, BofA still won't agree to apply the same level of transparency as other institutions have.

In addition, Pina insists that Bank of America's record on sub-prime mortgages is much worse than that of Wells Fargo and that 65 percent of home loans given to Florida minorities by Bank of America for 2005-06 were sub-prime. The corresponding figure for Wells Fargo Mortgage -- which, unlike Wells Fargo Bank, has been in Florida for years -- is only 2 or 3 percent, he said, adding that he has obtained these figures from the banks' public reports, whose filings are mandated by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

Above all, FMCRC is particularly upset about Bank of America's statistics on home loans to African-Americans in Florida.

Although African Americans make up about 15 percent of the state's population, they received less than half of 1 percent of all the bank's conventional home loans in 2005-06, he said. By comparison, he said the figure for Wells Fargo Mortgage was between 8 and 15 percent, "which is still not great."

BofA officials reject many of Pina's claims.

For instance, in an email to HispanicBusiness.com, company spokeswoman Nicole Nastacie said Bank of America stopped making sub-prime loans in 2001.

She added that when BofA acquired Countrywide -- then the nation's largest mortgage lender -- in January of 2008, Countrywide agreed to end its practice of giving out sub-prime loans.

Nastacie also took exception to Pina's charge that the company isn't transparent.

"When we met with FMCRC on June 8, 2009, we agreed to meet with them annually to review our CRA performance as we do with other community groups," she said.

Nastacie also provided an additional statement from Fields, written today.

"While Bank of America disagrees with the statements raised by FMCRC, we stand ready to continue our dialogue today with Mr. Pina to correct the record regarding the level of our commitment and investment in communities across the state of Florida."

In any event, in addition to asking for more transparency, Pina's memorandum makes several specific demands.

One touches on the bank's charitable giving. While 42 percent of the state's population is made up of minorities, only about 4 percent of the bank's philanthropic donations go to minority-run non-profit organizations. (By comparison, the corresponding figure for Wells Fargo Bank in California is about 8 percent, he said.)

"The only way to really affect change and create jobs in these communities are with non-profits, and research shows the most effective way is for them to be minority non-profits," he said.

On conventional home loans to African Americans, the FMCRC wants to see the figure improve from what he said is the current .02 percent to between 5 and 10 percent within one year.

The memorandum also calls for Bank of America to establish 25 new branches in the state's low- and moderate-income areas by December 2010.

Other organizations are standing behind FMCRC. Among them are the South West Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and the Filipino-American Political Alliance of Florida.

"Al Pina is a man with integrity and guts," said Bobby Perez, president of South West Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, in a mass email endorsing Pina's call for minority groups to boycott the bank. "I know he is man (sic) with courage and cares about the people he is personally sacrificing his time and energy for."

Jacksonville City Councilwoman Glorious Johnson has endorsed Pina's hunger strike.

"With due respect to Mr. Fields, Bank of America may deliver $37.7 billion to low-to-moderate communities, but the fact remains that we have yet to see the impact or creation of jobs in distressed communities with any of these funds," she wrote in a letter to Walter Massey, Bank of America's newly elected chairman (incidentally, Massey is African American). "Some of my questions are: Who was given this money and what did they do with it? Who is accountable for these funds? Why aren't the legislative representatives at the local level aware of these funds?"

As for Pina -- once a high-paid sales manager whose outlook on life changed drastically about a decade ago when he was diagnosed with cancer -- he doesn't appear to be bluffing about the hunger strike.

What's more, Pina, a resident of Tampa, has done this before. In 2005, he went on a hunger strike to protest SunTrust's treatment of poor communities.

The company eventually agreed to commit more funds to poor borrowers. Pina said it took 16 days.

Although Fields' BofA office is located in Tallahassee, Pina is staging his protest 160 miles away, at a "modest hotel" near downtown Jacksonville.

Pina declined to mention the name of the hotel. His stay is being funded by the FMCRC.

Pina said he chose Jacksonville because it is Florida's most stagnant area when it comes to minority community reinvestment.

"There are some minority census tracts in JAX that have over 50 percent unemployment right now and over 70 percent poverty rates for single mothers with children," he said in an email to HispanicBusiness.com. "So JAX becomes ground zero for change in Florida."

Jacksonville is also home to Johnson -- the city councilwoman -- who is among his staunchest political supporters.

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