A coalition of community groups called Thursday on Southern California's banks to provide emergency help for riot-damaged neighborhoods by sending out vans where residents can get government checks cashed for free, loans up to $500 with minimal paperwork, no-cost checking accounts and money orders at a nominal fee.
"During this emergency, all banks should seriously attempt to provide small personal loans, lower their interest rates for credit-worthy people in impacted communities and reach out beyond their branches by providing services on a temporary basis in churches and community centers where people feel safe," Gilda Haas, an organizer for Communities for Accountable Reinvestment, told a congressional hearing.
Her group, which includes black and Latino community groups, and the city of West Hollywood has sent letters to 24 banks operating in Southern California asking for a special six-month effort to bring low-cost banking on wheels to the neighborhoods damaged by looting and fires.
"You need a disaster relief program right now," she said in an interview after testifying before a joint meeting of the housing and consumer affairs subcommittees of the House Banking Committee.
Various banks, which are now studying the proposals from the coalition, said in response that they had already taken steps to help residents of communities disrupted by the rioting.
First Interstate Bank of California is allowing residents to defer payments on home mortgages and personal loans for 90 days. The bank will also allow customers to redeem certificates of deposits before the regular maturity date without penalty and will provide $200,000 to community groups for food, shelter and medicine.
"It's very important for our customers to get breathing space," Senior Vice President John Popovich said.
Bank of America is talking with Los Angeles city officials about the possibility of free cashing of government checks and will provide $25 million for loans to small businesses in amounts up to $100,000, according to spokesman Russ Yarrow.
At Great Western Bank, spokesman Ian Campbell said, "We need to look at those ideas on an individual basis and see if they make sense."
The hearings, originally called to examine government data showing that blacks and Latinos are rejected for home loans more than twice as often as Anglos, took on a special tone of intensity because of fresh memories of the Los Angeles riots.
"These hearings could not be more timely," said Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), chairman of the consumer affairs subcommittee. "The recent explosion of violence that ripped through Los Angeles last week brutally illustrated the effects of long-term neglect and disinvestment on our minority communities."
However, Republican members of the two subcommittees said it would be unfair to accuse banks of systematic discrimination without knowing the credit history of the individuals rejected for home loans.
Two black witnesses said they had been victims of discriminatory lending policies. Mathabo Kuene of Los Angeles, whose neighbors raised $700 to pay for her trip to Washington to testify, said she had been unable to get refinancing for her Baldwin Hills home. She then became the victim of an unscrupulous broker, who promised to get her a loan, and is now fighting to save her home from foreclosure.
Willard Brown of St. Louis said he was rejected by four lending institutions when applying for a mortgage, although he had an income of $30,000 a year and a good credit history.
The Communities for Accountable Reinvestment coalition gave the hearing a report on a study of 67,000 mortgages granted in Los Angeles County by Bank of America, Great Western, Wells Fargo and First Interstate.
Great Western provided 24% of the home loans in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, which are often minority neighborhoods, according to the study. The other three institutions each had market shares of less than 5%.