Bank Shot

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With a red hot real estate market and a multiplex on the way, the cash flows fast these days in Harlem. Unfortunately, most of it is going the wrong way–straight out of the neighborhood. Little of that new money stays around long enough to make a difference: Harlem has more check cashers than banks, and local entrepreneurs and home buyers have few places to turn for lines of credit.

That soon should change. Two Harlem community activists are now in the process of starting up the neighborhood’s first community development credit union.

To begin with, the bank’s first branch will merely provide checking and savings services to Harlem residents, giving them a low-cost option for ordinary banking needs. “We’re initially doing a lot of outreach to certain segments like tenants in public housing,” explains April Tyler, one of the project’s two directors. “Those are the people most cut out of commercial banking by high fees.”

But Tyler and co-director Luther Smith have bigger plans: eventually, they intend to expand the credit union into a full-fledged community development bank, offering small business loans, home improvement loans, and mortgages. The goal is to create a strong base for the local economy.

“When you talk about long-term economic development and sustainability, it has to come from the ground up,” explains Smith, who also works as community affairs director for Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. “That means there has to be small local retail, local entrepreneurship, and a very strong locally-based property-owning community. To a great degree, that’s encouraged and aided by credit.”

According to research prepared by the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Program, West and Central Harlem residents have at least $650 million on deposit in the neighborhood’s nine branches.

But credit is a chronic problem, and only a few pennies on the dollar are returned to the neighborhood in the form of mortgages or loans. “We didn’t want to complain, march, moan and groan,” says Smith. “We wanted to do something proactive. We have the economic power to make a difference right now.”

Smith and Tyler are now collecting pledges from neighborhood residents, in order to apply for a charter later this year.