Short on tax revenue, Atlanta counties sue HSBC

An HSBC Bank branch is seen at 550 Fashion Avenue on August 1, 2011 in New York City.

Baltimore has sued big banks.  Last summer, Memphis settled a lawsuit against Wells Fargo for $432 million. Now, three Atlanta-area counties are taking on British banking giant HSBC.

County budget shortfalls have consequences big and small. Just ask DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader. The trek to his 5th floor office, just outside of Atlanta, always, begins the same.

"These elevators maybe work about half the time," Rader explains, mashing the buttons until they light up. "Unfortunately, we can't pay to replace these elevators, and so we have to pay more over time to keep unreliable equipment operating."

Since the foreclosure crisis hit the Atlanta area in 2008, Rader says DeKalb County has seen about $150 million in property tax revenue evaporate each year. That's more than 20 percent of the budget. County buildings are falling apart. Potholes go unfilled.

DeKalb is suing HSBC, as are neighboring Fulton and Cobb Counties. They say the bank's predatory lending triggered their budget shortfalls.

"This was to make money, at the end of the day," says Jim Evangelista, the plaintiffs' attorney. "And it was not the fault of the borrowers. It was not the fault of the economy."

A 145-page lawsuit against HSBC alleges the bank targeted minority communities with expensive, sub-prime loans that often went into default.

The metro Atlanta counties say that's since cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. But the damages often run deeper than budget gaps.

"It's the increase in crime. It's the value of a life," says Harley Etienne, who teaches urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. "You have lots of crime that's associated with the vacant properties, and I don't know how you start to calculate the value of those losses."

On Friday, HSBC filed a 53-page motion to dismiss the case. Among other things, HSBC's lawyers claim the statute of limitation has passed, and that the counties' claims are vague and unsupported.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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