Skip to Main Content

Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    

Subscribe to Receive Blog Post Updates via


Recent Comments

Popular Discussions

Calendar of Events

View all Events

The need for more sunlight on the mortgage lending marketplace

Why do borrowers and communities of color get FHA and other government-backed mortgage loans disproportionately more often than white borrowers and communities? This is the question I’ve been hearing and grappling with since the recent publication of our multi-state collaborative report “Paying More for the American Dream VI: Racial Disparities in FHA/VA Lending.” I, too, want to understand why this is happening. More specifically, why did FHA/VA loans make up over 86 percent of the home purchase loans in Rochester’s communities of color in 2010? And why were only 14 percent of the borrowers in these communities able to get conventional mortgages?


The data we have available, or the lack thereof, make it difficult to answer these questions. Other than borrower income, the public has little information about the borrower that might shed some light on how lenders make underwriting decisions. If I had information about the borrower’s credit history/credit score, her debt-to-income ratio, the property’s loan-to-value ratio, the loan’s APR, I might begin to know why a borrower obtained the loan she did. Right now, however, I am left wondering.


I don’t want to wonder or guess; I want to understand. That is why I am disappointed that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently published a delay in its rulemaking to implement enhancements, like those listed above, to the publicly available data. These enhancements were in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that became law two years ago. It now looks like the earliest we’ll have a rule is April 2013,[1] so we’ll probably have to keep guessing until at least the fall of 2015 when the 2014 data are released.


I want to trust that when a borrower walks through the doors of any lender, he or she has full choice of the range of conventional and government-backed mortgage products available from that lender. And I want to see that lenders are putting borrowers into the most affordable loan that fits their individual financial circumstances. Along with vigorous enforcement of our fair lending laws and other regulatory improvements, this increased transparency will improve our understanding of and trust in the process. As Justice Brandeis said, "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."[2] Too bad we have to wait a bit longer for the sun to shine.

[1] The CFPB’s regulatory schedule notes that the “CFPB expects further action” as of April, 2013. See p.7 of schedule at:

[2] As found at: under Louis D. Brandeis quotes.

Tags: mortgage lending | lending | HMDA | Dodd-Frank | FHA | lending disparities | redlining | discrimination | fair lending | paying more

Welfare Program Controversy is All Politics – Not Substance

Issue Area: Public Benefits

On July 12, the Federal Department of Health and Human Services presented states with an exciting opportunity by offering to waive some of the most restrictive federal welfare rules for states that propose programs that would more effectively accomplish the goals of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) law that enacted Welfare Reform.


Without venturing  into the endless debate about whether the 1996 welfare reform was a success (I think accounts of its spectacular success are, at best, seriously overblown), the fact is that many states, red and blue, have told HHS that they could develop more effective programs if they had greater operational flexibility than current law permits.  For example, TANF law requires states to have specified percentages of TANF adults participating in a very short list of work-related activities, the activities are very narrowly defined, and there is little leeway to serve clients with disabilities.  In short, the law emphasizes compliance with a multitude of rules that have little to do with helping recipients move from welfare to decent-paying employment.


The HHS announcement ( demonstrated that they were in no way deviating from the mandates of the TANF law.  States seeking waivers must propose a pilot project that will be rigorously and regularly evaluated, and that will help parents “…successfully prepare for, find and retain employment…” States that fail to show adequate progress in achieving that goal will face termination of the waiver.


HHS offered some helpful examples of the kinds of programs they envision.  These might include state initiatives that would:


  • Measure success not by client participation in activities of often limited value, but rather by actual employment outcomes.  Remarkably, the current system pays scant attention to how and what recipients are doing after leaving the welfare system. 
  • Involve collaboration between state workforce or post-secondary education systems that would enable clients to “…combine learning and work…”  The rigid work-first philosophy behind the 1996 welfare reforms has meant that in an era where ever higher levels of education are required for most employment, the welfare system often makes it nearly impossible for recipients to pursue educational goals.
  • Explore more effective strategies for serving people with disabilities, including more appropriate ways to measure participation and outcomes.


Despite the careful crafting of this announcement, it nevertheless provoked an outraged response from some quarters.  Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation attacked the Obama administration for the “gutting” of welfare reform, and within days, Orrin Hatch in the Senate and Dave Camp in the House introduced legislation barring such waivers.  The issue quickly became a presidential campaign issue as the Romney team (erroneously) derided the administration for eliminating the welfare work rules.


The great irony is that the HHS action promotes two objectives that seem custom-tailored to conservative values:  (1) moving TANF recipients from welfare to work and (2) affording states greater flexibility in operating their welfare programs.  Instead, this has been characterized as an insidious undermining of welfare reform and its emphasis on work.


What comes next is not entirely certain.  I would hope that many states  (including New York), recognizing the potential for bold innovation, will come up with creative, robust proposals that will quiet the opposition and, more significantly, will enhance the lives of some of the poorest Americans.


More reading:  


A good summary of the arguments in favor, but also with food for thought about how states might craft their proposals, from LaDonna Pavetti at CBPP.   (link to)


Washington Post “WonkBlog” discussing Secy. Sebelius’s response to Orrin Hatch (Senate Finance) and Dave Camp (House Ways & Means), who had written angry letters to HHS about the waiver program, (link to)


Tags: Public Benefits | TANF


Welcome to Just Thoughts, Empire Justice Center’s new blog.  For the next several months, this blog will be a work in progress as Empire Justice staff and guest authors periodically blog about a variety of issues that matter to us.  Among other things, bloggers will be sharing their expertise and perspectives on timely issues, pointing out interesting news stories or events and, via client stories, putting a face on the work we do.

In addition to getting our voice out to our supporters and new audiences in a less formal way, we hope Just Thoughts will initiate conversations and build community.  Empire Justice is excited to see your comments, feedback and opinions about the various topics and about ways to improve our blog.  And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog and have our new posts delivered to you via RSS feed!