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Housing discrimination lawsuit involving two Baltimore women to continue after judge denies motion to dismiss

A federal lawsuit against Bank of America and Safeguard claiming that the companies did not properly maintain Bank of America-owned properties in minority neighborhoods in 37 metropolitan areas while doing so in white neighborhoods will be allowed to proceed after a judge struck down a motion to dismiss the case Thursday.

In a memorandum, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake wrote that the claims brought by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a coalition of affordable housing agencies and two Baltimore residents “are not minor, temporary, or localized” and are serious enough to warrant the case moving forward.

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The group sued the two companies in June 2018 alongside two Baltimore residents — Wanda Onafuwa and Chevelle Bushnell — as they claimed more than 35,000 photos documented how the companies neglected to do proper exterior maintenance to homes in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

Onafuwa and Bushnell — who the group says have lived in Baltimore for more than two decades — claim their houses had problems with rodents and that abandoned homes in their neighborhoods became occupied by squatters as the companies neglected to properly foreclose the properties.

Bushnell also claims that people broke into her home by breaking a hole through the adjoining wall between her home and a property that had been vacant for years, but was not properly foreclosed.

In their motion to dismiss, the companies had argued that they did not discriminate against residents by denying to rent or sell properties to minorities.

“Instead, they make the implausible claim that their one-time inspections over a seven-year period of properties in certain zip codes purportedly demonstrates there is a racial disparity between white and minority neighborhoods in the exterior property conditions of dwellings allegedly owned or serviced by Bank of America after foreclosure,” the motion reads.

They also argued that maintenance was not housing-related enough to be covered under the Fair Housing Act section cited by the plaintiffs.

Blake denied the arguments, writing the claims “fit well within the language” of the section of the law, “which explicitly extends the purview of the FHA to ‘the provision of services or facilities’ in connection with the sale or rental of houses.”

Attorneys for Safeguard and Bank of America were not immediately available for comment Thursday.

In a statement, Lisa Rice, CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said Thursday’s ruling is a “big development.”

“Bank of America and Safeguard must be held accountable for their discriminatory actions, must make substantial changes to their policies and practices, and must make the communities they have harmed whole,” Rice wrote.

The Ohio-based Safeguard Properties had previously settled with Maryland’s Attorney General’s office in 2015 for $167,000 after the Attorney General Brian E. Frosh alleged the company failed to supervise and train its vendors who work in Maryland.

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