Pick your yardstick.
The topic is minority homeownership, or, more pointedly, the lack thereof.
You can measure the problem by the length of the tales of woe from would-be buyers of color who receive grief if not outright rejection when applying for a home mortgage.
Reports filed last year with the federal government by some of the nation's leading lenders show loan denial rates for African Americans and Latinos that are in some cases double the rates for whites.
Or you can take the route of the Greenlining Institute, a San Francisco-based public advocacy group, and tally, each year, other dismal statistics that demonstrate the persistent "homeownership racial divide."
Between 1995 and 1998, the number of loans to African Americans in Los Angeles County earning $55,000 or more increased by only 134--from 1,628 to 1,762. By comparison, the number of loans to whites in the same income group grew by nearly 16,000 during the period--from 19,960 to 35,732. That rise was nearly 120 times greater than the increase for African Americans, according to a 1999 Greenlining study.
For some key executives in the lending community, the tape measurer will count 1999 and 2000 as benchmark years--periods when some of the nation's leading lenders kicked their outreach programs into high gear, with the ultimate aim of dramatically increasing the number of mortgages approved for people of color.
Some of the progress and new ideas will be reviewed Wednesday in San Francisco, when two dozen regulators and members of the banking, insurance and advocacy communities gather at the first ever "Affordable Housing and Minority Homeownership Roundtable." Organized and co-hosted by the Greenlining Institute, a "multiethnic, anti-redlining public policy and advocacy center," the gathering will include many who are empowered to take a leadership role in addressing what Greenlining calls "a growing crisis."
At the gathering, which will include key figures with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the state treasurer's office and the National Black Chamber of Commerce, participants will talk about new concepts such as share equity programs, which would allow venture capitalists to invest in home ownership.
Meanwhile, individual lenders have launched or amped up a number of programs in the hope that when observers gauge 1999's numbers this fall, there won't be so much collective embarrassment among those who hold the keys to the front door.
"We expanded our Hispanic effort dramatically in 1999," said Angelo R. Mozilo, chairman of Calabasas-based Countrywide Home Loans, the largest independent mortgage banker in the U.S. "We've strengthened our infrastructure to be even more focused on this than we were in the past.
"I have a high sensitivity to this because I come from a very mixed area, the Bronx, N.Y.," added Mozilo, who co-founded Countrywide's parent, Countrywide Credit Industries Inc., back in 1969. "Secondarily, I think it's a very good business and it has proven to be a good business for us."
Mozilo describes Countrywide as the largest lender to Latino home buyers in the nation, and the third largest lender to African Americans. Robert Gnaizda, policy director for the Greenlining Institute, thinks he may just be right.
Greenlining's report focuses on banks and thrifts and as such, does not include Countrywide in its comparisons of the major lenders. But it notes that in 1998, Countrywide made more loans to lower-income African Americans than Washington Mutual or Bank of America.
In fact, its 78 loans in that category was more than CalFed, Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo's tallies combined.
Last year, Countrywide more than doubled the number of branches nationwide that include at least one bilingual employee--going from 47 at the beginning of 1999 to 108 this year, company officials said. Much of that growth was in Southern California.
The company also expanded its home lending program to fund $80 billion in new loans over five years to lower-income and African American and Latino home buyers, according to Mary Salinas Duron, who heads Countrywide's "House America" program.
(Many of the targeted efforts underway currently focus on African Americans and Latinos, rather than Asian Americans, who tend to have higher homeownership rates than other ethnic groups.)
Jim Roby, who heads the community development program for Bank of America's western region, said that bank's numbers for 2000 "should be fantastic." And he said he expects to see the numbers increasing even further "as banks get serious about this kind of business and realize that it's a good business."
"We recognize that there is room to improve," he added. "We don't dispute that."
The Greenlining report found that BofA tied with Sanwa Bank for the lowest percentage of loans issued to African Americans in the Los Angeles metro area: 2.5%.