Leroy Hubbard, co-director of the D.C. Reinvestment Alliance, is one of many community activists who suspect that area banks have refused to provide loans, mortgages and other banking services to customers in the District's low-income neighborhoods.
But neither Hubbard nor any other community activist has had access to confidential data about bank lending practices to evaluate the facts.
That situation is about to change.
Under provisions of the federal savings and loan association cleanup legislation, banks will be required to disclose future regulatory ratings on community lending practices.
By forcing banks to make public the previously secret information, community activists hope to boost their campaign against redlining, the practice of denying loans and mortgages to neighborhoods based on their racial makeup.
"We're enthusiastic and waiting" for the ratings, Hubbard said. "They will give us some of the information that hasn't been forthcoming over the years. We will certainly be monitoring them."
The first bank ratings should appear by the beginning of August, but officials at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency could not say when District banks will be graded because banks are randomly selected for compliance examinations.
The ratings will be accompanied by one or two paragraphs on key areas under scrutiny, providing a "general description" of how the bank fared in each area, said Ellen Stockdale, spokeswoman for the comptroller's office.
Though the new regulations will increase public scrutiny of bank lending practices, the actual loan figures will not be publicly released.
Instead, the comptroller's office, which examines District banks, will merely issue the rating -- outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance.
Banks routinely receive from federal regulators a secret rating of their compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which tells banks that they have "an affirmative obligation" to meet the credit needs of customers in all areas, including low-income areas, where the banks collect deposits.
In the District, community activists hope the public ratings will help settle a dispute with area banks over a report by former D.C. banking superintendent Edward D. Irons accusing out-of-state banks doing business in the District of reneging on community reinvestment commitments they made to the city.
Irons, who recently resigned from his post amid the dispute, released a report in May that suggested the banks provided far more mortgage loans to predominantly white wards than they did to predominantly black wards.
The Washington Area Bankers Association released its own report in June criticizing the analysis by Irons.
American Security Bank spokeswoman Vicky Tassan said the bankers association's report showed that out-of-state banks in the District had far exceeded their commitments to community reinvestment required by District law.
"Washington area banks are very proactive," Tassan said, adding that the ratings will not catch D.C. banks "with their pants down."
Under the D.C. Interstate Banking Act of 1985, out-of-state banks entering the District made commitments to invest specific levels of funds in the community.
However, the D.C. Office of Banking and Finance has no power to force banks to release private data that would show how well they complied, and it has no power to penalize banks that have not lived up to their commitments.
If nothing else, banking officials and community leaders agree, the ratings will force banks to polish their public image. Some community redevelopment specialists say they have already seen signs of banks increasing their activity in low-income neighborhoods. In banking circles, some officials may be nervously awaiting the first round of public ratings.
"There's concern that the ratings will be misunderstood," said Virginia Stafford, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, the banking industry's chief lobbying group. The Community Reinvestment Act "ratings are not the only indication of a bank's activities in the community," she said.
Stafford said the banking industry expects there won't be many "outstanding" ratings because many banks won't be able to provide the extensive documentation required by the regulators and because the regulators will need to show they are tough graders.
"We feel that a satisfactory rating is very respectable," Stafford said.