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By a Thousand Cuts
Tara drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she waited in the bank parking lot. Going in as a group would be more intimidating. Never waste an advantage when you’re fighting the good fight, her mentor had told her. Her mentor, Jeff Hayes, had started Outsiders Realty thirty years ago. When he retired, he had signed the business over to her. As far as Tara knew, Jeff had invented the activist realtor work category. She took difficult cases. People who didn’t have gold star credit ratings, or were self-employed, or had very specific requirements for very good reasons.
Last week she had talked a seller into taking her client’s lower offer because the seller’s house was the only wheelchair-accessible house available in the neighborhood. Her client was a veteran who had been through several realtors before her. The previous realtors had lost patience with the mismatch between his accessibility requirements and his salary. That was how most of her clients lost their battles: a series of small difficulties that wore them down bit by bit. Death by a thousand cuts.
She had lost count of the battles she’d walked away from because her clients had asked her to. Being right didn’t pay their legal bills or speed the wheels of bureaucracy.
Today should be easier. She didn’t have to use statistics and research and lawyerly arguments. Well, she did have a lawyer coming. But her clients also had some very well-placed friends.
Tara saw the Harrises arriving in their sedan with the guests of honor. Daren, the lawyer, parked his car next to the Harrises. Including Tara, six people would be confronting the loan officer today. No, Tara corrected herself. Think of it as educating.
“Daren, good to see you,” Tara greeted the lawyer. “Glad you could make it; you’ve been busy. You’re getting a reputation for taking on algorithm discrimination cases.”
“Karma, I guess,” Daren said. “I became a lawyer instead of a software engineer like my parents wanted and now I do law about . . . software.”
“Let’s do introductions before we go in,” Tara said. “Daren, this is Scott and Latisha Harris. They’re closing on a house tomorrow. Hopefully.”
Scott scanned the small group gathered around him. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Bringing in so many people? We want this guy to like us.”
“I’m done being nice to this douchebag,” Latisha said. “He preapproved us and then waited until the day before our closing to tell us we weren’t actually approved. We’re lucky the sellers agreed to move the closing. We still might lose the house.”
“How about a middle ground?” Tara suggested. “We’re not trying to get on this guy’s Christmas card list. But we don’t want to antagonize him.”
“We brought the documents you asked us to,” the woman standing next to Latisha said. “But I’m not sure what you want us to do with them.”
“You must be the Nelsons,” Daren said.
“Karen Nelson, Latisha’s friend,” the woman said. “Probably should have started with that. And this is my husband, Xavier.”
“Karen and Xavier Nelson,” Daren repeated. “Great. We need your documents to prove that your income and credit rating are comparable to the Harrises. It helps that you just bought a house on the same block.”
“Latisha and I have been planning to live next door to each other since elementary school,” Karen said. “We finally found the perfect houses and I’m not going to let some stupid—”
“Douchebag,” Latisha corrected.
“—douchebag loan officer change our plans,” Karen finished.
“Do they often finish each other’s sentences?” Tara asked Xavier.
Xavier laughed. “All the time.”
“Time to go in,” Tara said. “When we go inside, let Daren and I lead the conversation. We stick to facts. We are polite, but firm. That goes for everyone. Any questions?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“Excellent. Let’s go.” Tara led the way.
“I feel like we should have someone filming us in slow motion,” Xavier said.
Entering as a group had exactly the effect Tara intended. Every other customer in the bank looked at them. Tara led the group to the loan officer’s cubicle. A nameplate on the desk read ‘Frank Campbell.’
Frank looked up from his papers and did a double take. “I—uh, I have an appointment with Scott and Latisha?”
Does he even remember what Scott and Latisha look like? Tara wondered.
“I’m Scott, and this is my wife, Latisha.” Scott had been nervous in the parking lot, but Tara couldn’t see any sign of nerves now. “And all of these people are with us.”
Frank looked around his cubicle as if he were looking for a way out over the walls. “I guess we can grab another chair.” They could only fit one more chair in the small space. Daren, Karen, and Xavier stood behind the three chairs crowded in front of the desk.
“I’m their realtor and this is their lawyer.” Tara pointed to Daren. “We’re here to discuss what seems to be an oversight in your evaluation of Scott and Latisha’s loan.”
“I realize the timing was . . . unfortunate . . . but there’s really nothing I can do,” Frank said. “I help clients through the process, but people above me make the final approvals for all of our home loans.”
“Do you know who decided Scott and Latisha’s loan didn’t meet final approval?” Daren asked. “Perhaps we can talk to them.” He used this question often when he and Tara met with loan officers. Daren knew full well, just as Tara did, that no one had personally reviewed Scott and Latisha’s loan application. Big banks ran on efficiencies and heuristics and algorithms. But the question forced Frank to name someone who wouldn’t want to speak with them or acknowledge the truth.
Frank’s eyes widened in mild panic. “I mean, most applications aren’t manually reviewed. But there’s a program we run everything through to get final approval.”
“So, what you mean is the people above you choose the process to get final approval and that process is outside of your control?” Tara asked. She and Daren had perfected this little intro.
Frank nodded a little too vigorously. “Exactly. So you understand. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Are you aware that the US Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination when approving borrowers?” Daren asked.
Frank looked between Karen and Xavier, both White, and Scott and Latisha, both Black. To their credit, Scott and Latisha stared calmly back.
“I can assure you,” Frank said. “We do not evaluate home loan applications based on race.”
This was the part where Tara and Daren stayed silent. Just for a couple minutes. Long enough for Frank to shift in his chair and notice that the rest of the bank was suspiciously quiet too. The tellers were watching. Customers waiting in line looked up from their phones. Inwardly, Tara smiled. This was her favorite part.
“Did you know that realtors get most new work based on referrals from friends and relatives?” Tara asked.
Frank mumbled something.
“Here’s the thing,” Tara continued. “Latisha and Karen have been friends for a long time.”
“Since preschool,” Latisha and Karen said at the same time.
“They’re very close,” Tara said. “They went to the same high school and the same college. They chose the same major. They have the same job at the same company and they get paid the same salary.”
“It’s the household income that matters,” Frank said. “I’m afraid I can’t really discuss the details of someone else’s loan application.”
“Oh, we don’t mind.” Karen set some papers down on his desk. “This is a copy of our loan application. We compared the numbers for you.”
Tara brought out a copy of the Harrises’ loan application. “As it happens, both of their husbands are in grad school right now. Their stipends differ slightly, but as you can see the total household income for these two couples only differs by about $1,000.”
Frank pushed the applications back. “There are many factors that go into a loan approval decision. Perhaps there was an issue with the value of the home they were going to purchase.”
Tara knew she had the facts on her side. But she also knew she didn’t always win. And when she didn’t win, her clients suffered. “Oh, I’m quite sure that’s not the case here.” Tara nodded at Scott, who had his own collection of paperwork.
“We brought some pamphlets from the builder,” Scott said. “If you review the loan paperwork, you’ll see our house is on the same block as Karen and Xavier and was appraised for the same value. It’s the same floor plan as theirs, in fact.”
The development was not Tara’s favorite. The builder had lined endless blocks with cheaply built houses to turn a quick profit. But it was a home. She couldn’t get distracted with the unfairness of government policies that made home ownership the path to financial stability or greedy builders cashing in on local subsidies to extend urban sprawl.
“You can see our confusion, I hope,” Daren said. “On paper, these two couples are basically identical. But one of these couples was approved. And the other . . . wasn’t. And the couple that wasn’t approved is Black.”
Had Frank started the meeting with circles of sweat on his dress shirt? Tara wasn’t sure. But she was pretty sure she knew how to close this deal. “I’d like to talk about the timing of their loan getting turned down again.”
Frank huffed. “Look, I already told you—”
“I just want to be sure of the timeline here,” Tara said. “Their loan was turned down Wednesday, correct?” Tara waited while Frank chewed on the question.
“Yes,” Frank said after a long minute.
“When was it you said you called the bank, Latisha?” Tara had practiced this part with Latisha earlier.
“Tuesday,” Latisha said. “I have the customer service rep number and date in my notes.”
Frank ignored the handwritten notes Latisha added on top of the already tall pile of evidence. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the significance here and I think our time is about up.”
“Maybe you should remind Frank why you had to call customer service,” Tara said.
“You wrote my name down as ‘Lisa’ on the paperwork,” Latisha told Frank. “And when I discovered the error, you said you couldn’t fix it, I would have to fix it by calling the loan servicing department.”
Frank scratched his head. “I still don’t—"
Tara smiled her most polite smile. “On Monday, Kevin and Lisa were approved for a loan. On Tuesday, the names on that loan changed to Kevin and Latisha. And on Wednesday, their approval was rescinded. Nothing else on their loan application changed.”
“I surely hope this is not the case,” Daren said. “But it does look like the status of my client’s loan changed based on a name that is more likely to belong to a Black woman.”
“I—uh—just let me—” Frank waved over a man in a suit with a name tag that said manager underneath. They leaned toward each other and conferred in whispers over the cube wall.
Tara didn’t want to let them get too far in planning damage control. “I hope we can correct this oversight.”
Caught off guard, the manager almost let his customer service mask slip and Frank’s mouth stayed open. Tara was used to this shocked reaction. Most of her clients weren’t used to demanding what they were due. She knew exactly why. As a woman in business school, she had often been labeled difficult during mock negotiations.
Tara certainly planned to be difficult in these negotiations. “We’d like to give your bank the opportunity to fix this before we file a complaint with the federal government.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” the manager said.
“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Tara mocked the bank manager’s words in a singsong tone as she swirled the wine in her glass. “God, even when the bank fixes something they can’t say they made a mistake.”
“It’s a corporation, not a person,” Daren said. But the twinkle in his eye told Tara he was being sarcastic.
“Except when the Supreme Court says a corporation is a person,” Tara said. Artistic bronze light fixtures made the dark wood grain of the bar gleam. Across from Tara, an impressive array of liquor bottles lined the wall. Underneath the liquor bottles there was an equally impressive espresso machine. This was Tara’s favorite hangout, night or day. In the mornings they served the best coffee in the city, and in the evenings you could drink your sorrows away.
“We got the Harrises their house.” Daren raised his mocktail in a toast. “To a fruitful afternoon.”
“Feel like we won a battle but we’re losing the war,” Tara said. “You know what they’ll do now, right?”
“Admit that the AI algorithm they use to screen loan applicants is really nothing more than a fancy black box that reproduces the biases of the data they trained it on?” Daren asked.
They both laughed.
“They’ll tighten up the preapproval process so if the social security number doesn’t match the name, the application will get kicked back,” Tara said. “And next time, we won’t be able to point to something obvious like a name change.”
“It was the perfect example. We probably won’t see one like it for a while.”
“How’s the book going?” Tara asked. “Do you have all the research you need?”
“You’ve given me so many anecdotes it’s practically a dataset. Between that and all the other research I’ve collected, I can easily make a good case about how modern banking’s misuse of algorithms hurts people.” Daren frowned. “But I’ve had writer’s block lately.”
Tara had never seen Daren back down from a fight when he had a good case. But it wasn’t fear she saw in the lines creasing his forehead. “You’re worried about something.”
“John Snow published research in 1849 showing that cholera was waterborne,” Daren said. “But years passed and thousands more people died before anyone in power took him seriously. I don’t know what would be worse: I never finish the book, or I do and no one reads it and nothing changes.”
“We’re playing the long game,” Tara said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”
“Weren’t you just the one saying it felt like we were losing the war?” Daren asked, smiling. “Now you’re trying to be the optimist.”
“Trying,” Tara admitted. “I’m an optimistic pragmatist, I guess. I have to believe that things might change . . .”
“Or there’s no use in trying,” Daren said.
They clinked their glasses again.
“I’m going to make sure you finish that book,” Tara said.
“And I’m going to make sure you keep getting people houses.”
“Deal.” Tara finished her drink and swung her purse over her shoulder. “Speaking of, I have a pile of paperwork at home.” After 9:00 p.m. was her best work time. Maybe she worked too late sometimes. But bureaucracy was her weapon. She had learned how to work the system. She liked to think of each form as a skirmish and each one of her wins as a paper cut. Her day-to-day work wasn’t dramatic and sometimes might even be called boring. But she didn’t always get a magic sword to slay a giant—sometimes her best strategy was death by a thousand cuts.
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