Washington radio station WDCU-FM raised a provocative and timely question last Wednesday in a two-hour broadcast of a forum on lending by commercial banks in the District. The program showed clearly that many District residents have serious misgivings about the city banking industry's commitment to investing in the city.
During the show, bank representatives, local government officials and representatives from community organizations answered questions from the studio audience and callers about the role of banks in the community and the effect of interstate banking on lending policies.
The sometimes emotional statements from the program's audience further illustrated that, with few exceptions, District banks have failed to eradicate the image many residents still have of an industry deliberately unresponsive to their needs.
Indeed, ugly charges of redlining -- the deliberate practice of refusing to make mortgage loans in certain neighborhoods -- were revived during the broadcast amid expressions of frustration, anger, confusion and outright ignorance of basic consumer banking practices.
Savings and loans traditionally have provided the bulk of mortgage loans. Nevertheless, banks in general have been sharply criticized over the years for their lending practices in certain areas of the city. Some local bank executives, informed of the issues raised by the show's audience, took strong exception to the criticism. They insisted, in fact, that all of the city's banks have substantially increased their lending activity in all parts of the city.
The District's banking industry has serious public relations and public education problems, nevertheless. It soon became clear from remarks made during the WDCU broadcast that local banks haven't done a very good job of convincing the public of their commitment to invest a greater portion of funds in the District. Nor have they been effective, apparently, in marketing their products and services.
It's also been apparent the past couple of years that some District banks have been more aggressive than most in making loans in so-called underserved areas of the District. That's due in part, of course, to the District's passage of an interstate banking law.
Two years ago, the District approved a regional interstate banking law, permitting mergers between D.C. banks and those in an 11-state southeastern region. The law, which is similar to others in the region, permits a bank company from another state to buy a D.C. bank as long as the home state of the company making the purchase grants the same privilege to District banks. In addition, banks coming into the District must agree to increase investments in underserved communities.
In early 1986, the council amended the interstate banking law, effectively opening the city to bank holding companies from all areas of the nation. However, those institutions must comply with more stringent investment requirements. They are required, for example, to create up to 200 jobs and provide at least $100 million in loans and lines of credit to borrowers in targeted communities.
In the interim, some D.C. banks have stepped up investments in the city in the absence of any requirement mandated by law. Long before its merger with MNC Financial of Baltimore, for instance, American Security Bank declared its commitment to invest "unlimited dollars" in economically disadvantaged areas of the District. True to its word, American Security has provided $100 million in loans to rehabilitate 3,000 multiunit dwellings in underserved communities since 1985.
American Security's community development lending group, a division of its real estate division, projects an additional investment of $150 million by next fall. D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, a panelist on the WDCU program and chairman of the council's Committee on Housing and Economic Development, singled out American Security Chairman Daniel J. Callahan III for his commitment. Robert Pincus, president of Sovran/D.C. National Bank, "has the same view of the world," Jarvis said.
No doubt there are other District bankers with the same view of the world. But they have yet to make the same kind of impression on local residents.
In fairness, District banks have kept a commitment to help fund the District's Neighborhood Economic Development Corp., a for-profit entity created two years ago to revitalize designated areas of the city. The District government agreed initially to invest up to $10 million in the corporation. D.C. bankers promised to put up 25 percent of the $5 million that the local business community was expected to raise through a private stock offering.
In the initial offering, which ended last month, local financial institutions put up two-thirds of the $3 million raised by the private sector, matching $6 million in D.C. government funds. The corporation, still in the organizing stage, hopes to begin investing funds in small businesses and neighborhood rehabilitation next year.
"That does show that there is some life in the business community, especially among local banks," C. Jackson Ritchie, president and chief executive officer of First American Bank of Washington and acting president of Neighborhood Economic Development Corp., said in an interview. "It is the seedling of a true public-private partnership."
That much is true. But the example shown by American Security and a few others goes a lot farther in dispelling the notion that locally owned and controlled banks will go on conducting business as usual.