For 24 years, Ericka Gray has owned her own mediation and arbitration business in Arlington, Massachusetts, helping organizations navigate workplace disputes. But when the Covid-19 pandemic began, her income completely dried up. In May 2020, Citizens Bank approved her for a $5,800 PPP loan. It wasn’t a huge sum compared the multimillion-dollar loans some corporations received, but Gray had enough income to pay her mortgage and cover her health care costs. But in May 2021, Gray received a shocking email from Citizens explaining that no, she shouldn’t have received $5,800. Instead, a bank representative later told her on the phone, she was in fact only eligible for $3,837. The difference won’t be forgiven, and she’ll have to pay it back. Citizens did not respond to a request for comment. Gray is not the only person whose bank has reversed its stance on how much PPP money they should be eligible for and demanded repayment. Three other small business owners told The Intercept they have similarly been notified by their different lenders that they shouldn’t have received the amount they were approved for and that they’ll have to pay back the difference.
For those preparing to apply for the FY 2021 application round, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund) conducted an informational pre-application webinar on June 30, 2021 for the Capital Magnet Fund. The presentation and a recording of the session are available on the CDFI Fund's website at www.cdfifund.gov/cmf under How to Apply Step 2: Apply.
While they aren't synonymous—although there is some overlap between the two categories—community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions have common roots in a shared historical purpose. “The roots of the CDFI banking sector began with the minority depository institutions,” says Jeannine Jacokes, chief executive of the Community Development Bankers Association. “In the early 20th century, when it was legal to refuse service to a customer on the basis of race, Black business people began organizing financial institutions that were Black-owned and committed to serving Black customers—and as populations of other communities of color grew, the diversity of the minority depository institutions grew as well.” Southern Bancorp and Bank of Anguilla are mentioned.
Certified by the U.S. Department of Treasury, nearly 1,300 CDFIs serve persistently impoverished communities and historically underserved populations with responsible financial services and technical assistance. The pandemic illustrated the financial services ecosystem's failure to serve poor, disabled, and BIPOC people and communities; yet CDFIs filled the gap and succeeded in serving these overlooked and financially vulnerable populations. To motivate others to invest, we highlight three CDFI investors. One investor couple is laser-focused on their home community of Lancaster; another investor has spent her professional and volunteer energies at the intersection of philanthropy and impact, and the third is an international venture capitalist who returned to the US and found CDFI investments to be “no-brainers.”
For people who need emergency money quickly, payday lenders have long been among the few available options. They are ubiquitous in the U.S., with an estimated 13,700 storefronts in 2018, many in low-income and Black communities. Although 18 states and Washington, D.C., have strong interest rate caps on payday lending, in others some lenders charge annual interest rates that surpass 600 percent. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequalities it exposed and exacerbated, there is a renewed focus on the need to counter payday lenders by bringing better, fairer banking services—personal loans, but also mortgages and small business loans—to the primarily low-income people who have long had difficulty accessing them. The federal government as well as corporations and at least one bold name philanthropist are injecting money into Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), financial service providers whose mission is to bring financial services to low-income communities and people within rural, urban, and Native communities—the places many traditional banks have largely excluded. The game-changing infusion amounts to billions of dollars’ worth of investment.
Southern Bancorp, a community development financial institution in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, is using an infusion of cash from Square to develop niche digital banking services for segments of its customer base. Square made a multimillion-dollar investment in Southern as part of a larger $100 million pledge to support minority and underserved communities, the bank announced this month. With this funding, Southern intends to create customized apps, each designed to address a specific situation for a well-defined underserved group. “We think the true growth opportunity for our bank is digital,” said Darrin Williams, Southern's CEO. “We’re very excited Square took note of the work we do. That capital will allow us to reach deeper into underserved markets.”
The California State Assembly recently voted to approve a plan to create a state-branded bank account that would be offered to all Californians regardless of income, wealth, race or ethnicity, or immigration status. Dubbed the “BankCal” program, the accounts would come with a debit card, no fees, no overdraft, no minimum balances, direct deposit and other perks. The program would contract with private banks and credit unions to actually hold the deposits and facilitate transactions, but the state would set the terms and serve as the public face for BankCal. Banking industry organizations oppose the bill. They argue the state shouldn’t get into the “very complex business of banking,” even though AB 1177 proposes that the state partner with existing private financial institutions — not exactly “getting into” banking in the purest sense.
Overdraft fees, initially marketed as a convenience, have proliferated in the past quarter-century. Rather than bouncing a check or other payment, these programs reassure customers that a bill won't go unpaid or an emergency purchase won't be denied — even though they can turn a $3 coffee into a $38 extravagance.
Since then, overdraft protections have become known as an aggressive way to siphon fees from consumers. Although customers must opt in to overdraft protections for debit or A.T.M. withdrawals, banks don't need their permission to charge fees for online payments or checks instead of letting them bounce. All told, overdraft fees are worth billions of dollars to banks each year. The charges were so lucrative to one midsize institution that its chief executive once named his boat after them. But the tide may be changing: An increasing number of banks are introducing services including grace periods and small short-term loans that provide less-punitive alternatives — if users qualify. Generally that means having a consistent deposit history, like regular paychecks, or other qualifications that may include a longstanding account. The biggest shift occurred this month when Ally Bank said it would eliminate its $25 overdraft fee altogether, giving customers six days to get in the black again before it potentially limits how they use their accounts.
Casey Christopher is a "CEO," but not the one you're familiar with. As "chief empowerment officer" at Manhattan-based Quontic Bank, she has a unique role in catalyzing innovation from the bottom up. As a community development financial institution, Quontic also has an express mission of reaching underserved market segments—for example, constructing credit products that work well for gig economy workers and immigrants whose finances may not fit standard underwriting models. This kind of financial empowerment translates into employee empowerment too—it calls on a whole team to feel ownership and empowered to introduce new ideas. That’s where Christopher comes in. Christopher leads empowerment through Quontic Bank’s core values: “say cheese” (smile and be positive); “try it on” (be adaptive and open to new ideas), “know the goal” and “progress, not perfection.”
Prior to the Covid-19 crisis and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, the median white household in America held nearly eight times the wealth of the median Black household in 2019, reports Brookings Institution. While President Biden and his administration have unveiled plans to help close this gap, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, many people have also called on corporate America and its leaders to take a stand in speaking out against racial inequality and economic injustice. Kevin Cohee of OneUnited Bank is among those interviewed.