The Return of Redlining?

This article on rates of subprime lending across neighborhoods beggars belief.

First, the striking finding.

The analysis, by N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, illustrates stark racial differences between the New York City neighborhoods where subprime mortgages — which can come with higher interest rates, fees and penalties — were common and those where they were rare. The 10 neighborhoods with the highest rates of mortgages from subprime lenders had black and Hispanic majorities, and the 10 areas with the lowest rates were mainly non-Hispanic white.

The analysis showed that even when median income levels were comparable, home buyers in minority neighborhoods were more likely to get a loan from a subprime lender.

Second, the key information.

The analysis provides only a limited picture of subprime borrowing in New York City. The data does not include details on borrowers’ assets, down payments or debt loads, all key factors in mortgage lending. And comparing neighborhoods is inexact; the typical borrower in one may differ from a typical borrower in another.

Jay Brinkmann, an economist with the Mortgage Bankers Association, said there was not enough information in the Furman Center analysis and other studies on the issue to draw conclusions about whether subprime lenders were discriminating against minority home buyers. One of the crucial missing pieces is the credit histories of individual borrowers, he said.

That certainly seems like crucial information to me.

Finally, the hysterical response.

“It’s almost as if subprime lenders put a circle around neighborhoods of color and say, ‘This is where we’re going to do our thing,’” said Robert Stroup, a lawyer and the director of the economic justice program at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

The NYT, which of course faces commercial and “newsiness” imperatives, doesn’t help matters. Even after citing Brinkmann, the author writes,

But the Furman Center study, a summary of which is being released today, still raises questions about the role of race in lending practices. A separate analysis of mortgage data by The New York Times shows that even at higher income levels, black borrowers in New York City were far more likely than white borrowers with similar incomes and mortgage amounts to receive a subprime loan.

This assumes, again, that debt load, down payments, and borrowers’ assets are fundamentally unimportant, and indeed that race is more important than these trivialities.

What we need is more data.