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By ELIZABETH HAYES

Staff Reporter

Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977 to encourage lending in low-income areas, but it has been difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much has been lent and to whom.

Four federal agencies regulate banks for compliance with the act, but there is no central clearinghouse tracking CRA loans, said Janis Smith, spokeswoman for one of the agencies, the Comptroller of the Currency. Instead, oversight functions largely have fallen on the shoulders of community advocacy groups like the San Francisco-based Greenlining Institute.

Indeed, Smith and representatives of both the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. referred questions on CRA lending in Los Angeles to the Greenlining Institute.

"What CRA requires banks to do is serve all the communities within their geographic area. That doesn't mean any particular kind of loan or service," Smith said. "The way you determine if (banks) are complying with CRA, is to look at all of it, (and ensure) that loans are not made in one pocket or area."

Amid pressure from minority advocacy groups, however, the Community Reinvestment Act regulations were revised in 1995 to require larger financial institutions to report the geographic location and income categories of their small-business and farm loans.

That pressure, according to Bob Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute, has resulted in major California-based financial institutions committing $314 billion over the 10-year period from 1994 to 2004 in CRA loans for mortgage lending, small business loans and economic development. Of that, $190 billion are California commitments, and $63 billion of that is in L.A. County, he said.

But community groups won't be satisfied until regulators change a controversial provision prohibiting banks from gathering data on small-business and consumer lending by race, ethnicity or gender. The rule was intended to protect consumers against discrimination, but open reporting of such data would likely expand minorities' access to credit, said Alan Fisher, executive director of the California Reinvestment Committee.

Without tracking, it is hard to prove that loans are being made to minority communities, said Jorge C. Corralejo, who is on the board of the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles.

Of the $314 billion commitments under CRA, no one knows exactly how much of it went to minorities, Gnaizda said.

"This (rule) might be changed in a few months," Gnaizda said.

In January, members of the Greenlining Coalition, which is affiliated with the Greenlining Institute, met with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig to push for changes to the rule.

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