Then, last month, appointments dwindled until finally a stay-at-home order shut everything down. With no income but plenty of bills, 32-year-old Ward-Hunter and her business-partner sister say they are close to depleting their savings and were denied a line of credit. They worry that they won’t get a piece of the federal government’s multibillion-dollar loan initiative and are loath to turn to the family who once chipped in to help them launch in their hometown.
“It’s kind of hard to ask someone to help you out when they’re laid off of work,” said Ward-Hunter’s sister, 36-year-old Kahara Morris.
Minority business owners, especially black and Latino ones, may be especially vulnerable to the economic devastation fueled by covid-19 because they are less likely to have a financial cushion, and they also tend to be in industries severely affected by the pandemic, advocates and researchers say. At the same time, there are fears that these groups’ businesses are primed to miss out on government aid.
As banks warn that the expanded funding could quickly run out again, some see minority-owned business as one more front in the uneven societal toll from a virus that has disproportionately infected and killed African Americans.
“The fissures of inequality that were there prior to the pandemic are going to be worse if we don’t immediately, you know, bring in mediating institutions … who can make the loans where we know it will make a difference,” said Lisa Mensah, president of a national association of community financial institutions focused on people typically underserved by mainstream banks, including low-income minority business owners.
Hundreds of those organizations, known as Community Development Financial Institutions, are unable to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) due to the Treasury Department’s eligibility restrictions, according Mensah’s group. Mensah said that is despite a conversation with “noncommittal” department officials.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the Treasury Department said it is working with the Small Business Administration to prioritize Community Development Financial Institutions as well as minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses, but it did not give details. The statement did not address other questions about lender eligibility.
Anxious would-be PPP borrowers quickly flooded the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif) with hundreds of calls, said executive director Harold Pettigrew. Unable to take applications, all the fund could do was become a sympathetic help center as $349 billion in aid dried up in two weeks, he said.
“It’s just frustrating and disappointing,” Pettigrew said, because Wacif, whose clients are mostly low-income and African American, “could actually be at the front lines of deploying these much-needed resources to small businesses that need it most.”
Fueling the concern about minority-owned businesses is the fact that 58 percent of black and Latino households in the United States “do not have enough income to cover three months of expenses without income,” compared to 29 percent of white households, according to a statement from the NAACP and several minority financial groups. Layoffs and pay cuts are also disproportionately hitting black and Latino households, according to the Pew Research Center.
“When Hurricane Katrina or Maria or the housing crisis or the tech crisis happened, those without wealth took two steps back,” said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. He argued in a blog post this month that more covid-19 economic relief should be targeted to the black community. The Brookings Institution, a public policy nonprofit, cites evidence that black-owned businesses were less likely to survive the Great Recession.
Wacif can participate in the new round of loan funds approved this week by Congress. The group of lenders has broadened, although the national association that the fund belongs to is still begging the Treasury Department to allow groups that give less than $50 million in business loans annually.
But Wacif head Pettigrew fears that new lender approvals may come too late for many businesses with already thin savings and little in the way of wealthy networks to tap. There’s a long line of applications unfulfilled.
“There’s such pent-up demand,” Pettigrew said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday on the Fox Business Network that he hopes the latest injection of $310 billion in PPP funds is “enough” and added that he expects the economy will be largely reopened later in the summer. The new PPP money is part of a $484 billion deal that also includes $60 billion for another small-business emergency loan and grant program.
On Thursday, after an uproar over money going to the likes of Shake Shack, the department also issued guidance making it harder for publicly traded companies to get the loans. The department told The Post that more than 1 million businesses with fewer than 10 workers have received PPP support and that almost a fifth of approved funds went through lenders with less than $1 billion in assets.
The government has not required lenders to track and report Paycheck Protection Program recipients’ race, and the Treasury Department did not address questions about demographics data Thursday.
Almost 90 Democratic members of Congress asked the Trump administration to “ensure that minority-owned businesses are not shut out” of federal rescue money.
Some local governments are funneling funds specifically to minority-owned small businesses. Community groups are trying to rally support, too, calling on people to patronize entrepreneurs who already are “too often no strangers to uncertainty,” as the Bay Area Organization of Black-Owned Businesses (BAOBOB) put it in a Facebook post about the threat from covid-19. The Bay Area is home to the two richest metropolitan areas in the United States, but lawmakers have lamented for years that skyrocketing wealth has left minorities behind.
Longtime Bay Area residents Sandra Davis, Lea Redmond and Anna Villalobos went into debt to open Oeste bar and cafe in Oakland in late 2017 and thought they had reached some stability by their second year. Their venue, which serves a combination of Latino and Southern cuisine, was crowded. They were paying most of their bills on time, they said.
Now their debt is growing, they can’t pay dozens of employees, and their takeout orders are bringing in a few hundred dollars a day when the rooftop establishment used to average upward of $9,000 a night. They are waiting to hear back about PPP, a lifeline they were counting on having in hand by now, and are realizing that in the era of social distancing, they may reopen at only 20 percent capacity when the stay-at-home order lifts.
“We are fighters,” said Redmond. “So we're not going to give up until we have to.”
Dorcia White thought her family might have to give up one of their nearly half-century-old Bay Area barbecue restaurant’s locations. Then, she said, Everette & Jones BBQ got a PPP loan, the only one White has heard of.
Before applying, she said, she made sure to go down to her local Wells Fargo bank to get some face time. But in the end, it was a PPP-eligible community development financial institution — where she was able to apply a bit earlier and where her family once got a loan — that came through, she said.
White sleeps better now, but she doesn’t feel like she can celebrate. She says she is too worried about everyone else.
Erica Werner contributed to this report.