Asking the Banker is Not New for the Bronx
On Thursday, January 26th UNHP hosted a lively bilingual zoom connecting Bronx residents with Chase Bankers. As UNHP reflects on our 40th anniversary it struck us that UNHP and Bronx residents have been “asking the banker” for more than forty years.
The pandemic forced the direct service arm of UNHP, the Northwest Bronx Resource Center (NWBRC) to rethink its large in-person resource fairs, events, and face-to-face services. One Covid-19 innovation - initiated in the fall of 2021 - has been our monthly ASK UNHP bilingual Zoom webinars. ASK UNHP/ Pregúntale a UNHP that attracts between 12-40 attendees each session who bring their housing and financial questions to the NWBRC Director Jumelia Abrahamson, UNHP staff, and the occasional guest expert. In June 2022, UNHP asked local banks Ridgewood Savings, Spring Bank, and Apple Bank - known for their affordable products - as well as two credit unions, LES Peoples Federal Credit Union and Neighborhood Trust Credit Union, to join ASK UNHP for a special “Ask the Banker” session. “Ask the Banker” bilingual webinar was created to expand financial access for NWBRC program users, Bronx bank consumers, as well as unbanked and under-banked residents by promoting the understanding of a wide range of bank products and programs and by empowering residents to ask questions directly of the banks.
Our second “ASK the Banker” session, in what we hope will be a recurring series, was with the Bronx’s biggest bank, Chase Bank. On January 26th, we were joined by Chase Bank for an opportunity to speak with our local Kingsbridge branch staff: branch manager Deborah Myers, Chase branch private banker Victor Madueno, as well as community manager Yesenia Quinones who focuses on addressing the wealth gap among Black and Latino community members. Chase staff answered questions from participants about reducing fees on their accounts, improving credit scores, and custodial accounts, investing in CDs, and programs for small businesses. The Chase branch staff offered appointments for follow-up at the branch to attendees and to other interested NWBRC members.
UNHP’s NWBRC works to build financial stability and offer opportunities for economic growth for Bronx residents through our financial education program, access to free financial coaching, and our most recent work to bring a credit union to the Bronx. Director Jumelia Abrahamson also advocates for ongoing bank commitment to Bronx residents through branch availability, low-cost accounts, and transparent fee structures. You can read more about our work to ensure Bronx residents have access to the right financial products through credit unions, branches, and affordable products in these articles from our blog: The Northwest Bronx Resource Center Shines: Summer 2022, UNHP and the Bronx Financial Access Coalition bring a Credit Union to the Bronx! , Community Financial Services for Immigrants are Important and Bank Branches Still Matter, This is What We Do: Bronx NonProfit & Financial Empowerment Exchange and More Alternatives to Alternative Financial Services Needed in the Bronx
Through our work, we know that many of our program users bank with Chase, the bank with the most branches in our community, but they may be paying too much in fees, not use all the bank products to their advantage, or not have the right type of account for their needs. UNHP sees “ASK the Banker” as one way to connect our program users with financial institutions to better understand their products and tools. UNHP will continue to add “ASK the Banker” sessions to our webinar calendar as a way to give Bronx residents more access to financial institutions and an understanding of ways to utilize financial services to their benefit.
As UNHP reflects on our anniversary it struck us that UNHP and Bronx residents have been “asking the banker” for more than 40 years. UNHP works with all the major lending institutions in New York, but for this throwback post, we will look at the thread of our work with Chase from our beginning through today.
The legacy of redlining and the closing of branches in the ‘70s and ‘80s played the primary role in the early history of UNHP. UNHP grew out of a people-powered organizing effort created in 1974 to address the reduction of public services and private investment, and the deterioration of neighborhoods and buildings. The tenant organizing work of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition helped people realize the huge role that banks played in housing and the ongoing need for private investment in communities. While researching the ownership of deteriorating buildings, organizers and neighborhood leaders identified the banks that held the mortgage. When reading the mortgage document, people saw the “good repair clause” which indicated that a bank could take action if the property was not well maintained. Tenant associations and community organizers began to include banks when sending letters to the landlord about conditions. With the City’s budget crisis and its unreliable code enforcement work, people started looking to banks as a potential resource when trying to get a landlord to do a better job. Congressional passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in 1977 gave community groups around the country a tool to push banks to meet the credit needs of their communities. Coalition leadership put an agenda together that demanded (aka Ask the Banker!) that banks make loans to fix up apartment buildings, refinance existing building mortgages, monitor conditions in the buildings, and maintain branches to meet the financial needs of the communities they served.
Using the newly legislated CRA, the Coalition worked to get banks, legislators, and bank regulators to understand the needs of the community. That work included meetings, occasional demonstrations, and formal challenges to bank regulators when unresponsive banks tried to merge or open new branches. In 1980, 5 banks signed a CRA Statement of Cooperation to work with the Coalition to provide 200 buildings with bank financing or refinancing. The Coalition established a staffed Reinvestment Project (Bill Frey from Enterprise worked for the Reinvestment Project from 1980 - 83 and UNHP’s Jim Buckley worked for the Reinvestment Project from 1984-’88) that ensured these commitments became realities by connecting banks to building owners who needed access to capital to preserve their buildings. The Reinvestment Project continued to work with tenant and neighborhood leaders on the Reinvestment Committee as they addressed bank service and lending needs in the community. With all these years of community work with banks as a backdrop, UNHP came into existence to assist in the implementation of community development projects identified by the community.
In 1988, based on the needs identified by neighborhood leaders, UNHP set out to get banks involved in providing loan money to support tenant and community acquisition of occupied and organized multi-family rental buildings. We were working with tenant and community organizations like the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation to try to get ownership of some of the distressed buildings where they were already working with tenant leaders to provide basic management services.
To support these building acquisitions, UNHP sought bank commitments to lend to a UNHP loan fund. The need for banks’ support in order to create the UNHP loan fund provided a space where the demands of neighborhood leaders could become a reality. After a series of meetings with different bank institutions, 5 banks committed to participate. Chase was the first to make a line of credit of $100,000 available for two years at prime interest (yes at prime – the ask was for the right to borrow money in the Bronx). That initial $100,000 funded the acquisition of two buildings in the Fordham and University Heights sections of the Bronx.
Once Chase closed with UNHP, 4 other banks followed suit; including Manufacturers Hanover Trust which years later ended up as part of Chase Bank. One of those two loans was made to Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC) to allow them to purchase a building on Briggs Avenue; FBHC had been the 7A administrator (court-appointed administrator to clear violations) of the building. Our two-year, interest-only loan allowed FBHC to buy the building and work on a Participation Loan with HPD and the Community Preservation Corporation to refinance and rehab the building. UNHP also worked with Chemical Bank, which later merged with Chase and received no-interest loans that UNHP used to support our work with tenant and community organizations.
UNHP believes that the partnership with Chase around our community loan fund, our successful management, and repayment of the loan was a factor that led Chase to create their Community Development Corporation and make loans directly to owners for both acquisition and rehab. This eliminated the need for UNHP’s acquisition lending, which was exactly what people had hoped banks would do all along.
UNHP staff continued to work with Chase staff and community organizations to package acquisition and renovation loans with the City’s Participation Loan Program. For example, the Chase CDC was our partner in the purchase of seven foreclosed multi-family buildings that were overfinanced by Freddie Mac. Our work together was acknowledged with a Social Compact Award for excellence in corporate and non-profit collaboration.
UNHP also continued to work with the Chase CDC to access acquisition financing for foreclosed buildings, including one of the properties that UNHP oversees: The Wilton. The Wilton was one of the many buildings that were over-financed and later foreclosed on by Freddie Mac in the early 90s. After efforts to gain improvements in their severely deteriorated buildings failed, the tenants worked with UNHP to move forward with a community ownership option. UNHP worked with Chase and HPD to obtain a Participation (PLP) Loan to fund the acquisition, which was later repaid through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) packaged by Enterprise Community Partners. UNHP and the building manager, Dougert Management, made significant improvements to the building after its purchase and upon receiving the LIHTC. Working over twenty years, UNHP, along with the Wilton tenants, has transitioned these two over-financed, foreclosed, severely deteriorated rental buildings to 32 units of decent affordable housing for low-income individuals and families. The building has many larger units (3 and 4 bedrooms) to accommodate larger families as well as commercial tenants. Some of the original tenants who lived there during the foreclosure still remain. In addition to the Wilton, UNHP worked with 6 other Freddie Mac foreclosed properties in the 1990s to transfer them to community ownership and restore decent living conditions for the tenants who lived there.
Encouraging appropriate reinvestment and addressing the long-term effects of redlining has shaped UNHP’s work since its inception. The last 12 years of UNHP’s Multifamily Lender Meetings where we discuss and share indicators of distress via our Building Indicator Database is another way UNHP has been meeting with and engaging bankers around local needs.UNHP senior staff work with ANHD’s Equitable Reinvestment Coalition to ensure that banks meet neighborhood needs. Meeting with bank regulators, and seeking improvements to the Community Reinvestment Act is also a part of our current work. Our work with Chase and other banks has been going on for decades and is a successful example of the need for communities to demand the appropriate private investment and engagement they need to grow and thrive. Our recent “ASK the Banker” webinar to connect bankers with community residents is just the latest in a long history to keep banks working in and for our Bronx neighborhoods. Read more about our work with banks through these blog posts; 2022 Multifamily Lenders Meeting, Trends in Housing Finance Thru Covid, CRA at 40, CRA at a Cross Roads