Prince George's, Md., Bill Highlights Uneasiness About Check-Cashing Stores

Claudia Benitez explains how a transaction works to a customer at Check Cash Depot in the Hyattsville area.
Claudia Benitez explains how a transaction works to a customer at Check Cash Depot in the Hyattsville area. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

Ivan Rivas was among the steady stream of customers to emerge from Check Cash Depot on Friday -- payday -- into a small, dusty strip mall on a portion of University Boulevard defined by pawnshops, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants.

"It's better than the bank," Rivas said of the Depot, which sits between a furniture store and another check-cashing store in the Hyattsville area. Rivas, a construction worker, said he paid 1 percent of his $607 paycheck because banks require "too much documents" to open an account.

For a segment of Prince George's County residents, check cashers -- stores that take a percentage of people's checks in exchange for providing instant cash -- make more sense than traditional banks. Some customers are undocumented immigrants; some can't afford to wait days for checks to clear or can't open bank accounts because of bad credit histories.

But a cluster of check-cashing stores leads other people to think: This is a bad part of town.

The County Council is considering restrictions that would make it more difficult to open check-cashing stores as part of a long-standing effort to improve Prince George's image by clamping down on certain types of businesses, including strip clubs, liquor stores, pawnshops and adult video stores.

The latest proposal highlights a persistent tension among residents of the economically stratified suburb, which includes both struggling, often blighted, urban areas and upscale, manicured subdivisions.

"People want to have quote-unquote 'nice things' in their neighborhoods, and a check-cashing place may very well be a nice entity," said council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), who proposed the bill. "Unfortunately, though, the image that it carries is not so great. And that's something people think about when they're looking to move into a neighborhood. . . . You don't see check-cashing places in Bethesda."

Campos said he does not want to put check cashers out of business. But he said an "over-saturation" of such places -- one industry spokesman estimated the county has "several hundred" -- is not in line with where he and others would like to see Prince George's go, and he wants the public to have more of a say about where they open up.

A state official with the agency that licenses the businesses said the rest of Maryland has nothing like the restrictions proposed in Prince George's. The District licenses check cashers but is not pursuing similar restrictions. Virginia check cashers must register with the State Corporation Commission.

Critics said check cashers prey on the less fortunate and attract crime because of the amount of cash going out the door.

The Prince George's bill would require new check cashers to acquire a special zoning exception from the county, involving a lengthy approval process with a public hearing. It would also limit the stores' hours, impose such security requirements as having a guard and bullet-resistant glass, and prohibit the stores from having ATMs or from sharing floor space with other businesses.

The last clause could be particularly onerous, business owners said, because many also offer money-wiring services or share space with liquor or grocery stores.

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