Suitability standards could open up lenders to a fair-housing can of worms, a compliance expert said Monday at the SourceMedia Fraud and Risk Conference in Las Vegas.According to Gary Lacefield, who spent a decade as a senior civil rights analyst and supervisor of lending investigations at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, lenders will "need to be very cautious" if legislators and regulators impose true suitability standards on the mortgage business. "If we do away with automated underwriting," he asked, "how are we going to protect ourselves from frivolous charges of discrimination?" Mr. Lacefield, who left HUD in 1999 after personally supervising or conducting more than 1,600 investigations, said automated underwriting was created in large measure in the mid-1990s to protect lenders from charges of bias. And it worked. Once computer systems started spitting out loan approvals based solely on lenders' underwriting criteria, without being touched by humans and their inherent biases, they all but wiped out fair-housing cases against lenders, he said. But if suitability standards are imposed as a response to abusive lending practices, Mr. Lacefield, who is now director of compliance at WR Starkey Mortgage, Plano, Texas, said automated underwriting would be little more than an exercise in futility. "If we take out the specificity provided by automated underwriting, we leave ourselves wide open to allegations of discriminatory behavior," he warned.

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