Letters to Regulators: Letter to the CFPB on the Need for Access to the Online Complaint System in Spanish

View or download a PDF of the letter here.

Dec. 9, 2021 

The Honorable Rohit Chopra
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
1700 G Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20552 

Re: LEP Access to Online Complaint System 

Director Chopra, 

We, the undersigned civil rights, consumer, and housing organizations, write to urge the  Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to address an equal access issue raised by  advocates in communities across the United States and in Puerto Rico regarding the CFPB’s  online complaint system.  

The CFPB complaint system does not allow for complaints from limited-English proficient  (LEP) consumers to be submitted in-language online, creating barriers to equitable access for the  many LEP consumers needing the Bureau’s assistance and impeding the CFPB’s ability to carry  out its fair lending and consumer protection obligations effectively. Disparate treatment  regarding the complaint process prevents effective enforcement of CFPB regulations within  Latinx and other communities with LEP consumers, making it easier for abuses and legal  violations to remain unaddressed in the communities with great need of the Bureau’s assistance.  As the Bureau noted in its 2017 report on serving LEP consumers, “The effective integration of  LEP consumers into the financial marketplace has the potential to create positive benefits for  consumers and the financial services industry alike.”1 

We urgently request that you provide access to the online complaint system in Spanish and other  languages commonly spoken by LEP individuals across the country. While phone access is of  great value to many LEP consumers, it is insufficient. Adding online access would provide the  possibility for greater use and for an unmediated opportunity to describe the challenges faced by  LEP consumers. This, in turn, would improve the complaint system as a tool by which the CFPB  can identify both individual institutions that may be violating various laws and regulations and  systemic problems requiring comprehensive solutions. Addressing this matter is of particular  importance right now because of the scale of challenges faced by homeowners exiting  forbearances and seeking alternative payment arrangements with their mortgage servicers. 

According to the 2017 American Community Survey, approximately 25.9 million individuals,  roughly 9% of the U.S. population, are considered LEP. Approximately 83% of all LEP residents  speak one of eight languages: Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Arabic,  and Haitian Creole. About 64% of the LEP population speaks Spanish. 

Families of color, including LEP individuals, continue to face barriers to access in the mortgage  and credit markets, as well as a lack of adequate oversight and enforcement to protect their rights  in the financial marketplace.2 

Practices such as formal and informal redlining prevented many Latinx households from  purchasing a home during the last century.3 This trend continues through the present day: Latinx  households are denied mortgages at a rate much higher than white Americans.4 Through limited  access to credit, many Latinx households and other LEP applicants, have been unable to gain  access to homeownership and the wealth-building opportunity it provides.5 Even when credit is  available, many homeowners in these same communities end up paying more for their mortgage  loans. To appropriately respond to this legacy of discrimination against Latinx and LEP  households and enforce consumer protections, the CFPB must ensure that its core services, such as the online complaint system, are fully accessible. 

Homeownership represents a substantial source of generational wealth – especially for Latinx  and LEP households. Home equity represents 67% of the net worth of Latinx households  compared to 41% for white households–higher than any other community of color in the  country.6 With such a large amount of wealth tied to homeownership, the loss of a home through  unscrupulous market actors or by inadequate mortgage servicing in the face of economic  hardship means that Latinx families not only potentially face homelessness, but also face the loss  of their primary source of accumulated family wealth. To promote economic and family stability  and to preserve home equity, the Bureau’s oversight work through its complaint database must  be fully accessible to LEP borrowers. 

Without in-language, online complaint access for LEP borrowers who speak Spanish, the  Bureau’s ability to provide proper oversight of practices in Puerto Rico is compromised. In the  last four years, Puerto Rico’s foreclosure crisis has worsened. Between 2017 and June 2021,  14,622 families have lost their homes. In the first half of 2021, at least 875 new foreclosure  proceedings have begun in the local courts—this during a period in which most foreclosures  across the nation were halted. With several natural disasters as contributing factors, there is an  increased need to hold financial institutions accountable for violations of consumers’ rights.  

Several additional factors in Puerto Rico underscore the necessity for providing equal online  access to the complaint process for Spanish-speaking individuals, including the heightened  participation of foreign companies and speculators in the mortgage market, the impact of abuses  and hardships on historically vulnerable populations, such as women and older persons, the  failure of the local government to receive and process complaints against financial institutions,  and a broad housing crisis on the island.  

We applaud the work the CFPB has already done to increase equity in its programs and  materials. We again acknowledge that in-language oral interpretation services are available  through CFPB’s phone complaint line. However, permitting LEP individuals to submit  complaints only by phone lowers the rate at which LEP individuals report complaints. Advocates  in Puerto Rico have identified a sustained preference to connect with assistance using online  tools, instead of by phone.  

A lack of online access to the complaint system for LEP consumers also means that any data and  conclusions drawn from a demographic analysis of complaint data is skewed. Utilizing this  distorted data could potentially result in the CFPB and other governmental institutions failing to  address the needs of LEP households, leaving them with less protection as the economy  continues to react to the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous climate change-driven disasters. As  the Bureau noted in its own recent report on mortgage servicing, access for LEP consumers  relates to fair lending risk.7 

We ask that the CFPB: 

  • Make available a Spanish version of the complaint form. In particular, the “Submit a  Complaint” webpage should be available in translation, as well as the pages linked to that  page for the “Start your Complaint” submission process. Further, these pages should  direct consumers to the Bureau’s Spanish language subsite, which contains many helpful  materials and should be expanded to contain more information about mortgage servicing  and loss mitigation. In addition, the Bureau should explore options for making the online  complaint portal available in other languages. 
  • Collaborate with stakeholders who work in LEP communities, including in Puerto Rico,  to raise awareness about the right to submit complaints to the CFPB. Additional work  should be done to highlight the availability of this service when consumers face problems  in connection with natural disasters, as these times present particular consumer protection  risks to affected populations. Such a collaboration would make it more likely that  complaints reach the Bureau, offering an opportunity for more prompt review and  resolution. 

While we recognize that providing online access to the complaint portal for LEP consumers may  present some administrative challenges to CFPB staff, the situation for borrowers across the  country has rarely been so perilous. The pandemic has hit hardest in the same communities  facing its greatest economic challenges. 

By quickly implementing these measures, we hope that the CFPB can continue to be a model of  effective and equitable consumer interaction and serve as an example for lenders as they seek to  increase the accessibility of their products and services. By ensuring that Latinx and other LEP  

communities can fully access the same complaint reporting options as their counterparts who are  proficient in English, the Bureau can provide these households with a better chance to avail  themselves of our nation’s consumer protection and fair lending laws and to address some of the  significant abuses they face.  

Thank you again for your attention to this matter.