STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On this Election Day, as Americans decide their country's future, the U.S. Supreme Court examines a case about the not-so-distant past. This case dates back to the time around the housing market collapse in 2008. The city of Miami wants to sue Wells Fargo and Bank of America under the Fair Housing Act. The city claims racial discrimination in the way that people were given mortgages and in the way they lost their homes. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The city of Miami alleges that the banks discriminated against black and Latino homeowners in terms in fees that made mortgages more expensive than they otherwise would have been. And when these homeowners ran into trouble, the suit says, the banks refused to refinance mortgages on terms equal to those offered to white borrowers in similar economic circumstances. It is a novel lawsuit, brought not by individual homeowners but by the city of Miami, which was ground zero in the housing foreclosure crisis.
Supported by two dozen other cities, Miami contends that local governments are in the best position to enforce the Fair Housing Act against large lending institutions that discriminate against certain borrowers. The city claims that the bank's foreclosures were racially disproportionate. They also say the foreclosures resulted in a dramatic drop in property values, which in turn resulted in a drastic drop in property tax revenue at the very time the city needed to spend more to deal with the resulting urban blight. A federal appeals court based in Atlanta ruled in favor of the city, allowing it the chance to prove its claims at trial.
The banks appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that Congress never authorized such suits. They also contend the city has not shown that the bank's discriminatory practices were the proximate cause of the drop in property tax revenue. There's little doubt that foreclosures lead to empty houses, blight and lower property values, but the banks argue that economic downturns can be just as responsible as the terms of any loan or series of loans, whether those terms are discriminatory or not.
If Miami can sue over declining property taxes in this case, they ask, what will be next - a lawsuit over declining property values brought by a neighbor or a store? Miami replies that municipalities differ from private individuals, such as neighbors or private enterprises such as stores, because municipalities have an interest in promoting fair housing. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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