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If a rising tide lifts all boats, minorities looking for a place to live might be better off buying a houseboat than a home.

That's the depressing conclusion from two new looks at a problem as old as pigment: the difficulty blacks and other minorities have getting a mortgage.

The evidence comes as the Senate -- led by Texas Republican Phil Gramm -- tries again to gut the Community Reinvestment Act, which attempts to ensure fair lending. It also comes as the House tries to reduce funding for fair-housing enforcement, an effort already hampered by laws that limit the ability to uncover blatant discrimination.

All of this occurs in a booming economy that was supposed to create colorblindness. That clearly isn't happening.

In fact, when it comes to getting mortgage loans, the gaps between whites and minorities have grown. It's almost as if having a larger number of prosperous white applicants means lenders feel free to turn their backs on everyone else.

Data compiled by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) showed that blacks last year were twice as likely as whites to be rejected for conventional mortgage loans, while Latinos were one-and-a-half times as likely to be told "no." And the lending disparities have widened in the last four years, not shrunk as optimists had expected.

"Even with the strong economy and extremely low interest rates of 1998, minorities were unable to close the lending gap in home mortgages, which has been growing since 1995," ACORN concluded.

Some of the reasons for that are explained by an Urban Institute study -- released at the same time this month -- which reanalyzed earlier studies criticized for overstating the problem.

The institute reworked the data and, while stopping short of alleging discrimination, still found large differences in lending rates to blacks and whites, even when controlling for factors like income. The institute concluded that those persistent disparities put the burden on lenders to show how underwriting practices that lead to the gaps serve some legitimate "business necessity."

Those questionable practices range from setting minimum mortgage amounts -- which disproportionately affect minority groups that have lower incomes, on average -- to sending out loan solicitations only to certain ZIP codes or locating branches only in certain neighborhoods.

Or it can go further. The local Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) is probing a case now in which some employees allege a major lender doesn't want to do business in minority-populated Buffalo.

And even when lenders think they aren't discriminating, subtle practices can have the same effect as overt racism.

The Urban Institute study included data from lenders who opened their books and cooperated -- apparently thinking their operations were colorblind -- only to be confronted with huge disparities in the loans given to whites and minorities. This suggests many lenders still aren't aware of the biases they bring to the table.

"We've heard of lending officers spending time with white applicants and resolving credit issues they might have, whereas a minority applicant will just be told 'no, you don't meet the criteria,' " says Scott Gehl, HOME executive director.

That kind of disparate treatment is something the minority applicants will never even be aware of as they leave. It only becomes apparent when studies like these get released, translating isolated incidents into troubling patterns.

One weakness of the ACORN analysis is that it does not control for variables like income, as the more comprehensive studies in the Urban Institute review did. Still, the fact that the gaps have widened since 1995, not shrunk, is a strong indication that things are moving in the wrong direction in the "new economy."

But there are things that can be done.

More stringent federal enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act's fair-lending requirements -- not exempting some banks from them, as Graham proposes -- is one answer.

ACORN's Chris Saffert says 98 percent of banks currently get a good grade from regulators, yet "with the evidence we're seeing, it's pretty clear that 98 percent of banks aren't doing a good job."

Gehl says regulators also could put a public spotlight on lenders facing credible allegations of bias instead of keeping that data confidential.

Congress also should increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development's fair-housing initiatives, instead of cutting it by $2.5 million, as the House budget would do.

And Congress could change the law that prevents fair-housing agencies from using white and minority "testers" to pose as home buyers. Because the law makes it illegal to submit a false credit history, testers who make initial inquiries now must stop before getting to the critical stage of actually applying for the mortgage.

What Congress shouldn't do is simply sit back, believing that a good economy is enough to wipe away problems that have far less to do with money than with the attitudes of those with the power to say "yes" or "no."

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