Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

How Seven Banks Serve Low-Income Markets

Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

How Seven Banks Serve Low-Income Markets

Article excerpt

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his second inaugural address in 1937.

Inner-city ills, dramatized by the Los Angeles riots in May, and the growing ranks of the impoverished and

V homeless seem irreversible trends. The government at many levels doesn't appear to have the funds or ability to reverse downward trends, and increasingly the private sector is being looked to for assistance. The renewed emphasis on the Community Reinvestment Act is one example.

If, to help your community and to improve your CRA rating and the size of your customer base, you want to better serve "those who have too little," how do you reach them and what do you offer them?

The most important thing is to have a physical presence in their neighborhood--either a branch or a loan production office, according to consultant James Carras, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That advice, he concedes, goes against the current perceived trends of consolidating and closing branches in low-income areas. Talking to community groups and church members, providing seminars for potential homebuyers, developing affordable products such as low-cost checking and low-rate loans, and making the bank approachable are a few of the other answers from banks that have made efforts to serve distressed areas.

Serving South Chicago. South Shore, Ill., was a prosperous, middle-class white Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s that suffered "white flight" and economic decline over the next two decades. Businesses were closed and apartment buildings were abandoned. In 1973, the only bank in the area, South Shore National Bank, applied to move to a more promising part of Chicago and was turned down by the Comptroller of the Currency. Four bankers interested in reviving the community raised $800,000 and bought the institution.

"The trouble was, every bank and savings and loan in town had red-lined South Shore, including the bank chartered to serve it--South Shore National Bank," wrote Ronald Grzywinski, chairman of the executive committee and one of the people who bought the bank, in an article published in Harvard Business Review, May 1991. "In the year before we bought the bank, it had made exactly two conventional home mortgage loans, for a total of $59,000."

The new owners established a target market of small businesses and individuals in the neighborhood. By July, 1992, the $212 million-asset bank had about $150 million in loans, all in the South Shore are. About 30% of the portfolio consisted of commercial loans, almost exclusively to minorities and women. The rest of the portfolio consisted of real estate loans, mostly in the parts of South Shore that needed the most help. (Originally the bank made single-family mortgages, but it became clear after a time that other banks were willing to make them and that the majority of the population lived in rental units. Now the bank only generates mortgages out of its other office in Austin, Ill.)

These are not charity loans. "They get no breaks, no discounts," says Linda Schwartz, a representative. "The bank clearly has an economic development agenda, within the guidelines of profitability as a financial services enterprise."

Those who are hard working and deemed creditworthy are given a chance. The community now has its first grocery store, as a result of a strip mall the bank financed, and many apartment buildings have been rehabilitated and purchased by residents through South Shore Bank loans.

"Had we conducted a market survey in 1973 to get a sense of how many potential entrepreneurs we had in the community to buy, rehab, and then manage apartment buildings as small businesses, the answer would have been |none,'" Grzywinski wrote in the Harvard Business Review. …

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