Compliments of Seattle Times
After a few years living with her sister, Rose Mary Zunie, 59, was ready to move into a place of her own.
So, on an arid Saturday morning this past summer, the sisters piled into a friend’s pickup truck and headed for a mobile-home sales lot here just outside the impoverished Navajo reservation.
The women — one in a long, colorful tribal skirt, another wearing turquoise jewelry, a traditional talisman against evil — were steered to a salesman who spoke Navajo, just like the voice on the store’s radio ads.
He walked them through Clayton-built homes on the lot, then into the sales center, passing a banner and posters promoting one subprime lender: Vanderbilt Mortgage, a Clayton subsidiary. Inside, he handed them a Vanderbilt sales pamphlet.
“Vanderbilt is the only one that finances on the reservation,” he told the women.
His claim, which the women caught on tape, was a lie. And it was illegal.
It is just one in a pattern of deceptions that Clayton has used to help extract billions from poor customers around the country — particularly people of color, who make up a substantial and growing portion of its business.
The company is controlled by Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, but its methods hardly match Buffett’s honest, folksy image: Clayton systematically pursues unwitting minority homebuyers and baits them into costly subprime loans, many of which are doomed to fail, an investigation by The Seattle Times and BuzzFeed News has found.
Clayton’s predatory practices have damaged minority communities — from rural black enclaves in the Louisiana Delta, across Spanish-speaking swaths of Texas, to Native American reservations in the Southwest. Many customers end up losing their homes, thousands of dollars in down payments, or even land they’d owned outright.
Over the 12 years since Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Clayton Homes Inc., the company has grown to dominate virtually every aspect of America’s mobile-home industry. It builds nearly half the new manufactured homes sold in this country every year, making it the most prolific U.S. homebuilder of any type. It sells them through a network of more than 1,600 dealerships. And it finances more mobile-home loans than any other lender by a factor of more than seven.
In minority communities, Clayton’s grip on the lending market verges on monopolistic: Last year, according to federal data, Clayton made 72 percent of the loans to black people who financed mobile homes.
The company’s in-house lender, Vanderbilt Mortgage, charges minority borrowers substantially higher rates, on average, than their white counterparts. In fact, federal data shows that Vanderbilt typically charges black people who make over $75,000 a year slightly more than white people who make only $35,000.