Feds reach a settlement with Ameris Bank for “redlining” in Jacksonville

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FILE - A for sale sign is displayed outside a home in Mount Lebanon, Pa., on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland saying redlining is “not just a relic of the past,” the federal government and Ameris Bank have reached a $9 million settlement to resolve allegations that the bank discriminated against Black and Hispanic residents in making home loans in Jacksonville.

Garland and other U.S. Department of Justice officials announced the settlement Thursday during a news conference in Jacksonville. The Justice Department notified Ameris in January 2022 that it was launching an investigation, which looked at a series of issues, including the locations of bank branches and how many loans were made in majority Black and Hispanic areas, according to court documents.

“Redlining makes it difficult for people of color to accumulate wealth through the purchase, refinancing or repair of their homes,” Garland said. “This has contributed to and it continues to deepen the persistent wealth gap in our country. This kind of discrimination in lending violates federal law, and it is contrary to the promise of equal access to opportunity upon which both our economy and our democracy depend.”

The settlement remains subject to approval by a federal judge. Ameris issued a news release saying it “firmly denies” violating fair-lending laws.

“”We strongly disagree with any suggestion that we have engaged in discriminatory conduct and are confident in our efforts to provide equal access to affordable mortgage products in the Jacksonville community and all the markets we serve,” Palmer Proctor, CEO of the Atlanta-based Ameris, said in a prepared statement. “We cooperated fully with the department’s inquiry and have entered into this settlement to avoid the distraction of litigation and because we share the department’s goal of expanding access to homeownership in underserved areas. The terms of this settlement are consistent with the bank’s existing programs and initiatives. We condemn discrimination in any form and remain committed to helping people in underserved communities gain equal opportunity to achieve homeownership, as well as access to banking services.”

In a complaint filed in federal court in Jacksonville, the Justice Department alleged that Ameris violated the federal Fair Housing Act and a law known as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

It contended the bank “avoided providing home loans and other mortgage services in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods” in Jacksonville and surrounding Clay, St. Johns and Baker counties. The probe covered the years 2016 through 2021 and focused on census tracts in Jacksonville.

As an example, the complaint said Ameris had 18 full-service branches in the area, with none in majority Black and Hispanic census tracts.

Also federal officials compared loan applications and loans made by Ameris and what the complaint described as “peer lenders.” The complaint said, for instance, that Ameris made 4,178 residential mortgage loans in the Jacksonville area during the period, but only 114, or 2.7 percent, were in majority Black and Hispanic census tracts. That compared to 9.5 percent for the peer lenders.

The settlement would require Ameris to take a series of steps including providing $7.5 million to subsidize home mortgage, home improvement and refinance loans in majority Black and Hispanic census tracts in the Jacksonville area.

The five-year agreement also calls for spending a total of $900,000 on such things as advertising and consumer education and a total of $600,000 on community partnerships to help residents with issues such as credit and foreclosure prevention.

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