Reported ArticleEquity

KeyBank and NCRC Are Back Together. What’s Different This Time?

The nonprofit is giving the big bank a shot at proving it’s not the “worst” for Black borrowers. But after getting burned by the lender during the last community benefits agreement, what guardrails can NCRC put in place to ensure KeyBank keeps its promises?

Jesse Van Tol addresses NCRC's 2024 Just Economy Conference in early April. Photo by Flickr user Scott Henrichsen


Just five months after calling KeyBank “the worst major mortgage lender for Black borrowers” and a little more than a year after initiating a very public breakup, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) in April announced that it and the big bank are rekindling their relationship.

“Good friends tell their friends when they’ve gotten off track. And NCRC is a good friend,” said Jesse Van Tol, the organization’s president and CEO, during a keynote speech announcing the partnership at NCRC’s 2024 Just Economy Conference in early April.

Though there’s not yet a new agreement, KeyBank has pledged $25 million to provide grants, downpayment assistance, branch expansion, and other offerings designed “to ensure greater levels of investment in minority and underserved communities.”

While Van Tol was exuberant during his recent announcement, he didn’t mince words in December 2022 during the breakup. NCRC accused KeyBank of discriminatory lending, directly violating an existing community benefits agreement (CBA) signed in 2016 that committed KeyBank to investing $16.5 billion over five years to help underserved and minority communities build wealth. “Map [KeyBank’s] mortgage lending and you’ll see something that looks an awful lot like the discrimination against entire neighborhoods, known as redlining, that prevented minorities from buying homes or accumulating wealth,” Van Tol wrote at the time.

[RELATED ARTICLE: NCRC Claims KeyBank Broke Promises, Failed Black Homeowners]

The newly formed relationship comes after “a lot of pressure from community groups,” says Ruhi Maker, a senior attorney at Empire Justice Center, a public interest law firm based in Rochester, New York. Maker helped negotiate the 2016 CBA and since the relationship soured has continued to push for the bank to come back to the negotiating table.

“They’ve agreed to work on a new community benefits agreement,” she says. “But the exact details aren’t known. It was just a conceptual, ‘let’s start working together again,’ but we don’t know what that will look like.”

While the $25 million is promising, that’s all it is: a promise (and one that’s nearly three orders of magnitude smaller than the 2016 agreement). Maker says not only is there no new CBA yet, no clear outline exists for remedying the issues NCRC identified with KeyBank’s conduct previously—namely, lack of transparency, unreliable reporting, and datasets presented out of context.

[RELATED ARTICLE: Which Community Benefits Agreements Really Delivered?]

One notable problem during the first CBA was that the bank reported its low- and moderate-income (LMI) lending in aggregate. “When you get big numbers, the bank can play with the numbers,” Maker says. “They were not reporting it out by market. They were merging their numbers. They could say they’d met their goal, but we independently had no way to verify that.”

And as it turned out, when that data was disaggregated, KeyBank’s LMI lending record was dismal. For example, in 2021, in KeyBank’s 10 largest markets, Black borrowers accounted for just 2.7 percent of its approved home purchase loans—down from 6 percent in 2018.

Maker says NCRC and the stakeholders working with KeyBank on creating and implementing the new CBA will be closely watching the data and how it’s reported.

Ernest Hogan, NCRC board member and executive director of NCRC’s Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the potential for a new agreement.

KeyBank has made important regional leadership changes, Hogan says. “It feels different. It feels like there’s some real understanding and desire to participate and be more engaged.” But, he adds, “the proof will be in the pudding. We’ve seen mild increases in their lending numbers; I wouldn’t call them transformational, yet, but we’re seeing very small upticks.”

Just being able to track those upticks is a step in the right direction. The 2016 CBA that NCRC negotiated with KeyBank was the advocacy group’s first, and Hogan says it was “a real learning experience.”

“If the bank really comes back in a real way, it’s going to have to be on a whole different level than it was the first time, and it’s going to have some real performance standards, real transparencies,” he says.

A KeyBank spokesperson told Shelterforce that the lender is “pleased to be moving forward with this agreement,” although it “disputes NCRC’s reports” of discriminatory lending. “We value our relationship with the NCRC and are committed to serving all communities in our footprint,” the representative wrote in an email.

In an emailed statement, Van Tol said the two entities “shoulder equal responsibility for deploying” the newly committed funds to ensure they “reach the most impacted communities with the least possible friction,” he wrote. “Our hope is to steward these dollars to efficiently improve quality of life and expand economic opportunity in the most underserved communities.”

Van Tol’s statement echoes the caution Maker and Hogan expressed. Both agree that the stakeholders learned a lot from the first round of negotiations and will take that experience into the upcoming discussions. “Recently, we’ve made [reporting requirements] much more specific. We have the lending broken out by Black borrowers and Latinx borrowers and Asian borrowers, so we can disaggregate the data,” Maker says.

KeyBank’s regional leadership has agreed to a series of standing quarterly meetings with stakeholders in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, which is a positive sign and something the lender wouldn’t do during the previous CBA, Hogan says.

“The question will be, does corporate put the support behind their local people,” he says. “And that’s where we, NCRC, as a collective, need to make sure that they’re genuinely interested on their side to come to the table.”

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