INDIANAPOLIS -- For years, Lillie Evans has sadly watched the weeds rise from the lawn, the rats scurry across the porch and criminals break into the boarded-up house across the street from her home.
She always figured it was abandoned, perhaps by some out-of-state investor, like half a dozen other homes in her neighborhood.
But it turns out Wells Fargo owns the house. She thought a bank would be more responsible with the property it owns.
"I've put a new roof and new siding on my house," the 57-year-old retiree said, "and they haven't done nothing over there."
In a landmark discrimination settlement, Wells Fargo has agreed to pay $27 million in restitution to 19 communities nationwide, including $1.42 million in Indianapolis. The National Fair Housing Alliance had accused the San Francisco-based lender of better maintaining and marketing bank-controlled for-sale properties in predominantly white areas than properties in largely African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
The Housing Alliance has filed similar complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against U.S. Bank, which is the lead bank of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, and with Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America.
The banks, reached Thursday by The Indianapolis Star, denied that any discrimination took place. Wells Fargo said it is investing in minority communities.
Examples of neglect compiled by the National Fair Housing Alliance are as high as the weeds in some of the properties' lawns. Compared with predominantly white neighborhoods, the houses in predominantly African-American and Hispanic areas had high grass and overgrown bushes; out-of-control weeds; trash spread everywhere; broken doors and locks; damaged handrails, windows, steps, roofs and fences; and holes in the walls, according to the complaints.
In contrast to suburban neighborhoods, few "For Sale" signs dotted the lawns of the bank-owned homes in urban subdivisions, the complaints said.
Little hope existed of repairing the houses and finding new owners, residents and neighborhood groups said.
The money Wells Fargo agreed to pay will be used for down payment assistance and rehabilitation, likely in grants ranging from $25,000 to $50,000.
Amy Nelson of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, an affiliate of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said details are being worked out for the program.
Despite such neighborhood troubles, Nelson said, progress has been made in Indianapolis. Since 2008, the city has granted $16.4 million, largely in federal funds, to repair 1,451 houses and rental properties. It also has used $29 million in federal money to attract $75.8 million in investment to build 518 homes.
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Longtime resident Cordelia Lewis-Burks, left, along with James A. Whitfield of the Highland Vicinity Neighborhood Association, center, and Michael Osborne of Near North Development Corp., discuss issues the neighborhood faces.(Photo: Doug McSchooler, The Indianapolis Star)
But with more than 7,500 foreclosed homes in the county, Nelson said, there is a long way to go.
"The problem here in Indianapolis is we have so many vacant properties and they have sat for so long that they need rehabbing," she said.
She is disappointed that banks can be part of the problem.
"It's frustrating for those of us working to ensure that these neighborhoods are stable and for the individuals who live in these neighborhoods," she said. "Whether it's bank-owned or investor-owned, if the house isn't owner-occupied or someone isn't living in it, it has a dramatic effect on the neighborhood."
Cordelia Lewis-Burks has lived in the area since 1965. The 76-year-old is known as the sheriff on her block because she chases would-be drug dealers from the partially redeveloped community. She moved in almost 40 years ago because it was a good place to raise a family. Then she watched the neighborhood become crime-ridden as people left for the suburbs in the 1980s.
Eventually, more and more homes were abandoned. Some were owned by banks. Others by investors. Some seemingly by no one at all.
She hopes to restore the neighborhood to its glory days, when it had its own school, grocery, drugstore and hardware store. But that's a tall task with blighted homes that banks and investors have ignored.
"It does not lend itself to people wanting to come into the neighborhood and buy property," she said.
Leigh Evans of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corp. has seen blocks thriving after being redeveloped within her community on the Near Northside.
But there are still many abandoned properties that need attention. She hopes the banks will work with nonprofits to address any potential discrimination, including attracting potential homeowners. Minorities, she said, often don't know about the opportunity for landownership.
"You can put a billboard up, and everybody has the opportunity to look at it, but you decide which neighborhood you will put the billboard in."
The banks deny discrimination. Wells Fargo admitted no fault in its settlement. The company said in a statement that it has invested nearly $11,000 per home for repairs on 71,000 properties nationwide, a total of $775 million. It also has donated nearly 3,000 properties and sold 3,728 at a discount to governments and nonprofits.
"These agreements represent a significant commitment by Wells Fargo, HUD and NFHA to invest in programs that will strengthen minority communities impacted by foreclosures," said JK Huey, a senior vice president. "We appreciate the perspectives and collaboration of NFHA and HUD in helping us shape these initiatives, which are consistent with our long-standing commitment to homeownership, fair and responsible servicing, and investing in the communities we serve."