Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a day when people are judged by character, not skin color, should apply everywhere — particularly in banks.

That's the message that Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, had on Wednesday, the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Today, for African-Americans in Salt Lake City and across the country, the American dream of home ownership remains elusive because of systemic discrimination at several banks," Williams said at a news conference at the Law and Justice Center.

The event was part of a National Day of Action to raise awareness of a class-action mortgage discrimination lawsuit filed last year against 17 lenders by the NAACP in federal court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit is in the evidence collection stage.

Lenders involved in the lawsuit have said it lacks merit and have asked that it be dismissed.

The lenders cited in the lawsuit are Washington Mutual Inc.; Citimortgage Inc.; HSBC Finance Corp.; GMAC Mortgage Group LLC; GMAC Residential Capital; J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; Chase Bank USA NA; Fremont Investment & Loan; Option One Mortgage Corp.; WMC Mortgage Corp.; Accredited Home Lenders Inc.; Bear Stearns Residential Mortgage Corp. doing business as Encore Credit; First Franklin Financial Corp.; National City Corp.; First Tennessee Bank doing business as First Horizon National Corp.; Long Beach Mortgage Co.; and Sun Trust Mortgage.

"At Chase, we believe we place our loans fairly because they are based on a buyer's financial qualifications," said Chase spokesman Tom Kelly. "Those qualifications include income, payment and credit history. ... Race is not a factor."

According to the lawsuit, blacks were roughly 33 percent more likely to receive higher-rate subprime loans than whites in 2006, even when income and credit risk were accounted for, according to a Center for Responsible Lending report, one of several cited in the lawsuit as evidence of alleged "systemic and predatory" practices.

But Kelly says the disparity could be explained by factors such as weaker credit history, a smaller down payment, or more debt.

Williams contends that race is a factor and says blacks are "given bad loans with high interest rates, with outrageous fees, because of the color of their skin. ... We're going to make sure they make amends and end this discriminatory practice right now."

Chase stopped issuing the subprime loans this spring. A motion to dismiss the lawsuit, filed on behalf of defendant Fremont Investment & Loan, says that lender stopped issuing the subprime loans before the NAACP filed its lawsuit.

Local NAACP attorney Alan Balanno said the lawsuit isn't moot, even if subprime loans aren't currently being offered.

"This has to do with discrimination, not with the mortgage crisis," he said. "The data shows this is so pervasive across the (mortgage lending) industry."

While the NAACP is currently the only plaintiff, it's possible that homeowners who have been victimized nationwide and in Utah will opt in, Balanno said.


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com