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The nation’s largest credit union rejected more than half its Black conventional mortgage applicants

Originally Published: 14 DEC 23 10:44 ET

By Casey Tolan, Audrey Ash and Rene Marsh, CNN

Editor’s note: The analysis classified applicants as Latino if they reported Latino ethnicity, no matter their race. Mixed-race applicants and applications from co-applicants of different races or ethnicities were excluded from the racial categories. Alternate methods of defining race and ethnicity – such as looking only at the demographics of the primary applicant and not any co-applicants – did not substantially change the results.

(CNN) — The largest credit union in the US has the widest disparity in mortgage approval rates between White and Black borrowers of any major lender, a trend that reached new heights last year, a CNN analysis found.

Navy Federal Credit Union, which lends to military servicemembers and veterans, approved more than 75% of the White borrowers who applied for a new conventional home purchase mortgage in 2022, according to the most recent data available from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But less than 50% of Black borrowers who applied for the same type of loan were approved.

While many banks also approved White applicants at higher rates than Black borrowers, the nearly 29-percentage-point gap in Navy Federal’s approval rates was the widest of any of the 50 lenders that originated the most mortgage loans last year.

The disparity remains even among White and Black applicants who had similar incomes and debt-to-income ratios. Notably, Navy Federal approved a slightly higher percentage of applications from White borrowers making less than $62,000 a year than it did of Black borrowers making $140,000 or more.

A deeper statistical analysis performed by CNN found that Black applicants to Navy Federal were more than twice as likely to be denied as White applicants even when more than a dozen different variables – including income, debt-to-income ratio, property value, downpayment percentage, and neighborhood characteristics – were the same.

The Virginia-based Navy Federal, which was originally founded in 1933 to serve Navy employees, is now open to all members of the armed forces, Department of Defense personnel, veterans, and their relatives. It has about 13 million members and more than $165 billion in assets.

Bob Otondi, a Black business owner in Texas who was denied a mortgage by Navy Federal in 2021 – and then approved by another lender in about two weeks – said the rejection “didn’t make any sense at all.”

“I thought it could have been racial discrimination,” he told CNN, “but I could never prove it.”

In total, the credit union rejected about 3,700 Black applicants for home purchase mortgages last year, potentially blocking them from homeownership just as interest rates spiked. And Navy Federal also approved Latino borrowers at significantly lower rates than White borrowers.

In a statement, Navy Federal spokesperson Bill Pearson defended the credit union’s lending practices.

“Navy Federal Credit Union is committed to equal and equitable lending practices and strict adherence to all fair lending laws,” Pearson said. “Employee training, fair lending statistical testing, third-party evaluations, and compliance reviews are embedded in our lending practices to ensure fairness across the board.”

Pearson said that CNN’s analysis “does not accurately reflect our practices” because it did not account for “major criteria required by any financial institution to approve a mortgage loan.” Those factors included “credit score, available cash deposits and relationship history with lender,” he said.

But that information is not available in the public mortgage data. Navy Federal declined to release additional data about its loans to CNN that included borrowers’ credit scores or other variables. In addition, most of the Navy Federal applications that were denied are listed as being rejected for reasons other than “credit history.”

By some measures, Navy Federal has been successful at lending to minority borrowers: A fourth of its conventional mortgage applicants are Black, and about 18% of the conventional loans it originated went to Black borrowers – a larger portion than almost any other large lender.

But because of the large racial disparity in Navy Federal’s approval rates, even though more Black borrowers are applying for conventional mortgage loans from the credit union, most of them are getting denied.

Experts in mortgage lending and advocates for fair housing said that the racial gaps in Navy Federal’s approval rates were surprisingly large and raised questions about the institution’s lending practices. Lisa Rice, the president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy group, said the racial gaps in Navy Federal’s lending identified by CNN were “some of the largest I’ve seen.”

“That is a quite stark disparity,” Rice said. “It’s unusual for us to see instances where the lender denies more loans than it approves.”

Experts said that Navy Federal’s racial disparities appeared to be an especially extreme example of a larger national problem. The credit union’s gap between White and Black approval rates has jumped significantly in recent years – and among all lenders, the racial approval rate gap has also grown.

More broadly, the gap in homeownership rates between White and Black Americans is larger today than it was before the Civil Rights era – and it’s a key driver of wealth disparities between White and Black families.

Navy Federal member says rejection left him feeling shocked and hurt

When Bob Otondi went house hunting in the summer of 2021, he immediately knew when he found his “dream house.” The three-bedroom home in a lakeside neighborhood of a Dallas suburb had an open kitchen, an expansive backyard with a pool, and – most importantly – it was in a great school district where Otondi’s son had long aspired to attend high school.

Otondi was thrilled when his bid for the home was approved, and expected that his mortgage application with Navy Federal would be smooth sailing. The relative of Navy servicemembers, Otondi had been a Navy Federal customer for years. The credit union had pre-approved him, he said he’d successfully paid off several previous Navy Federal vehicle loans, and he had budgeted a downpayment of more than 20% of the home’s value.

But then, just weeks before he was scheduled to close on the purchase, Otondi got bad news: Navy Federal was denying his application. The credit union told him in a form letter that it had concluded his income was not high enough to account for his debts.

Otondi said the last-minute denial didn’t make sense. According to documents he provided to CNN, he was making more than $100,000 a year from his logistics business and had a credit score above 700. He said he didn’t have significant debts.

In the heat of the pandemic-era housing market, Otondi feared he would lose the home. “I was stunned, I was shocked, I was hurt,” he said. He had been driving by the house with his son and daughter every week, and the kids had already planned out decorations for their rooms. “To go back home and tell them, ‘guys, we lost the house?’ I mean, devastating,” Otondi said.

But Otondi’s realtor, Angela Crescini, connected him with another mortgage lender who approved him for a loan in about two weeks – and the purchase went through.

“There was no real reason he shouldn’t have gotten the loan” from Navy Federal, Crescini said. “How can one lender get a loan done within 15 days and this other one couldn’t at all? It didn’t ring right to me.”

Pearson, the Navy Federal spokesperson, declined to comment on Otondi’s denial, saying that “our members’ personal and account information are private and confidential.”

As he sat in the airy living room of the three-bedroom home last month, Otondi said he was still frustrated by the mortgage denial. He said he submitted complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – the federal agency that oversees consumer lending – as well as a Texas state agency, both of which went nowhere.

Hearing about the larger racial disparities in Navy Federal’s mortgage approvals made him think the credit union was “inhibiting veterans and their families from just uplifting themselves,” Otondi said.

CNN’s analysis doesn’t prove that Navy Federal discriminated against any borrowers. But it does show significant disparities in the credit union’s approval rates for borrowers of different races – and that it has larger racial gaps than many other large financial institutions.

The analysis was based on data collected under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which requires most financial institutions to report anonymized information on mortgage applications to the government, including applicants’ race. CNN’s analysis focused specifically on conventional home purchase mortgages for homes intended to be used for a primary residence, and not intended to be used for a business or commercial purpose. CNN only analyzed loan applications that were ultimately approved or denied by lenders, not those that were withdrawn by borrowers before a decision was made.

In 2022, according to the data, Navy Federal approved 77.1% of White applicants, 55.8% of Latino applicants, and 48.5% of Black applicants. The 28.6-percentage-point gap between Black and White applicants was by far the largest gap among the 50 financial institutions that originated the most conventional home purchase loans last year, which includes Navy Federal.

In comparison, Wells Fargo had a roughly 19.5-percentage-point gap between its Black and White approval rates, US Bank had a 10-point gap, and Bank of America had a 3.5-point gap. The second-largest credit union in the country, State Employees’ Credit Union, had a 5.4-point gap.

Navy Federal’s racial disparities remain even when comparing only applicants with the same incomes or debt-to-income ratios. The credit union approved 59.3% of applications from Black applicants making $140,000 or more – those in the top quarter of applicants by income – and 59.8% of White applicants making less than $62,000 – those in the bottom quarter.

CNN’s analysis found that Navy Federal had statistically significant racial disparities in its mortgage approval rates while holding constant more than a dozen different variables including the applicant’s income and debt-to-income ratio, the loan amount, the property value, and the neighborhood’s socioeconomic makeup. Even among applicants who were identical among all those variables, the analysis found, Black applicants were more than twice as likely to be denied as White applicants, and Latino applicants were roughly 85% more likely to be denied than White applicants.

The analysis did not take applicants’ credit scores into account because the public data released under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act does not include credit scores due to privacy concerns. That means that at least part of the racial disparity could possibly be explained by differences in credit scores between White and minority borrowers. Black borrowers in particular tend to have lower credit scores, in part due to the impact of historical discrimination and a continuing lack of access to traditional financial institutions in Black neighborhoods, according to researchers.

The data does, however, include information on the reasons that applicants were denied. Of the Navy Federal applications from Black applicants that were rejected, less than a fourth were listed as being denied because of “credit history.”

Notably, the racial disparities in Navy Federal’s approval rates have increased over time. In 2018, the difference between the White and Black approval rates was only 11.5 percentage points – far smaller than the 28.6-percentage-point gap in 2022.

José Loya, a UCLA professor who has studied racial gaps in mortgage approvals and reviewed CNN’s analysis, called the disparities in Navy Federal’s lending “alarming.”

“It does surprise me that they’re doing significantly worse than other big lenders,” because of Navy Federal’s status as a credit union, he said.

What may be widening the gap

The decision to approve or deny a mortgage application is largely made by automated underwriting systems, and advocates have been pushing lenders like Navy Federal to improve those systems to reduce racial disparities.

In recent years, some banks have changed their underwriting systems to take into account additional data that can reduce those racial disparities – such as including an applicant’s history of paying rent in a calculation of their creditworthiness. Pearson, the Navy Federal spokesperson, said rental history was “incorporated” into the credit union’s underwriting process, but did not provide additional details.

Some experts pointed out that Navy Federal’s member base of servicemembers, veterans, and their families may have a different financial picture than the general public that large banks serve, which could explain some of the racial disparities.

In addition, unlike large banks, Navy Federal isn’t subject to the Community Reinvestment Act, which encourages lenders to make loans in low and middle-income neighborhoods. While federal regulators review banks’ lending under the act, they don’t do so for credit unions and other non-bank lenders.

Some advocates and banking groups have been calling for years for revisions to the law to require credit unions to follow the same rules. “Our legislators have given a huge pass to credit unions, on the assumption that they’re serving and meeting the needs of their members,” said Rice, the fair housing advocate.

In other cases, racial disparities in mortgage lending have been linked to loan officers helping White borrowers more than Black ones, said Sara Pratt, a lawyer at the law firm Relman Colfax who previously led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s civil rights enforcement efforts.

“A particular loan officer might make exceptions or just work harder for some peoples’ loans,” such as telling applicants to pay down credit cards or increase their downpayment if they’re on the edge of getting approved, Pratt said. “Loan officers might give this advice to a White borrower, and with a Black borrower, they’re less likely to do that.”

She noted that she had no evidence that Navy Federal employees were doing that but said the disparities in Navy Federal’s approval rates should “require a lender to offer justifications for how the disparity occurred.”

According to federal law, lenders don’t have to be intentionally engaging in racism to break fair lending rules. A “disparate impact” on minorities can also lead to discrimination claims.

“It’s bad business to discriminate because if people are genuinely qualified – as in many cases they are – then lenders are missing the opportunity to make loans,” said Pratt. “Lenders who look more carefully at these issues can see they’re losing business that somebody else is getting.”

Pearson said that the credit union was proud of the large portion of its loans that went to Black borrowers, and that more than half of its branches in the US are located in “minority communities.”

“As a not for profit, member centric, membership organization, we are focused on expanding awareness and access to home ownership across the country,” he said. “Navy Federal is a trusted financial partner for all its members and advises each member based on their unique financial needs.”

‘I thought we were going to lose the house’

CNN’s analysis found that Navy Federal had larger racial disparities in its approval rates for conventional mortgages than for VA home loans, which each account for about half of the loans it originated last year. VA loans, which are backed by the federal government, are designed to allow veterans to get mortgages that they might not qualify for in the conventional market.

But racial disparities still existed among Navy Federal’s VA loan business. Last year, Navy Federal approved 84.2% of its white home purchase VA loan applicants, compared with 73.8% of Latino applicants and 71.6% of Black applicants. Its Black-White approval rate gap was larger than all but one of the 50 lenders that originated the most VA home purchase loans. Like in Navy Federal’s conventional business, the racial differences were statistically significant even when accounting for factors like income, property value, debt-to-income ratio, and downpayment percentage.

Ted Spencer, 42, applied for a Navy Federal mortgage in 2019 as he purchased a home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Spencer, who is Black, had been banking with Navy Federal since he joined the Navy two decades earlier and had good experiences with the credit union, so it was an obvious choice for a loan. He was preapproved for a VA loan with no downpayment.

On his first weekend house hunting, Spencer toured a four-bedroom home in North Raleigh with a woodsy yard big enough for his dog and space for the kids he and his girlfriend would later adopt. “We walked through the house, and we were both like, yeah, this was the one,” he said. Their offer was accepted right away.

After Spencer submitted his paperwork to Navy Federal, he ended up waiting weeks. He said he repeatedly emailed, called, and messaged his loan officer without any response. Then, finally, he heard back that the mortgage was denied, with a letter from the credit union that he showed CNN citing his credit history and debts.

“It was pretty much the 11th hour,” Spencer said. “I really thought we were going to lose the house.”

But like Otondi, Spencer found another mortgage lender who quickly approved him for a new loan, at a lower interest rate than Navy Federal was going to charge him – and he and his girlfriend were able to close on the loan only a week late.

Spencer said he never thought the denial had anything to do with his race, and that the data CNN showed him about racial disparities in the credit union’s lending practices “blew my mind.” He said it made him think about family stories he’d heard about his grandfather’s experience dealing with redlining as he tried to buy a home after returning from the Korean War.

Some realtors who specialize in serving minority and veteran homebuyers said that Spencer and Otondi’s experience of being denied by Navy Federal and then easily approved by another lender wasn’t uncommon.

“If a client calls and says ‘I was disapproved by Navy Federal,’ the first thing we say is ‘let’s get you in with another lender,’” said Anthony Reanue, a California-based realtor. “In the military community, many people know that Navy Federal is not the best when it comes to mortgages.”

The credit union has previously faced scrutiny over racial disparities. An analysis by the nonprofit news outlet The Markup using 2019 data found that Navy Federal was among the large lenders with the biggest racial gaps in approval rates – and CNN found that the gap has only grown since then. Navy Federal said at the time that The Markup’s analysis did not accurately reflect its practices.

Navy Federal has also faced legal action over allegations of aggressive lending practices and other banking violations. In 2016, it paid about $28.5 million in redress and fines after the federal government found it had falsely threatened borrowers over debt collection and froze them out of their accounts.

Some of the Black borrowers denied by Navy Federal said they saw homeownership not just as a financial accomplishment but as a larger life goal. As an immigrant from Kenya, Otondi said that buying his house felt like living “the American dream right here.”

But after his rejection from Navy Federal, he said he couldn’t help but think about other Black borrowers who weren’t able to get another loan.

“What about the ones who are denied? What about the ones who now can’t get their own dream house?” Otondi asked. “It’s something that’s going to affect generations, all the way down to their kids.”

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