Frank Bass and Linda Stewart
Dallas — Banks expanded at a breathtaking pace over the past five years, adding more than 10,000 full-service branches, but barely 1 in 10 were in inner-city, minority neighborhoods, another sign the financial spending spree skipped over substantial parts of the country.
The discrepancy means millions of people who don’t live near a bank have had to hand over $2, $5 or $10 at a time — sometimes even more — in service fees to nonbank outlets to conduct basic transactions such as cashing checks or paying bills that most bank customers take for granted.
Nearly six branches were added every day, with bank offices racing to exclusive neighborhoods such as University Park in Dallas, Midtown West in Manhattan and Music Row in Nashville, Tenn., as well as the fast-growing exburban communities surrounding Sacramento, Calif., Phoenix and Cincinnati.
“It’s crazy, and they’re building another one!” said Mary Morgan, pulling into a parking spot at a JPMorgan Chase branch in University Park. Up the road, Comerica just cleared a lot to build a bank. A half-mile away, a financial institution is replacing a restaurant, she said.
“It’s stupid,” Morgan said. “How can the market be that big?”
Meanwhile, bank growth either declined or remained stagnant across wide swaths of the nation’s inner cities, with branches closing in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. shows that the nation’s 99,000 banks generally followed the money. About two-thirds of all neighborhoods have a median household income higher than the national average; about two-thirds of the new bank branches were in those neighborhoods.
An Associated Press analysis, however, found that branches weren’t added at a proportionate rate in minority neighborhoods. About one-third of the neighborhoods analyzed are predominantly minority, according to the Census Bureau; only about 1 in 10 new bank branches showed up in those areas.
The AP study was reviewed by the American Bankers Association and is consistent with other federal studies.
“It’s like the proverbial ambulance chasers,” said Charles O’Neal, a vice president at the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. “They’re all chasing the same dollar and they get little return. Meanwhile, on this side of town, folks are literally spending sleepless nights trying to figure out where do we go to find a financial institution that will be responsive to their needs.”
Bank officials say they are following the growth of customers to continue providing services because most people choose banks based on branch locations.
Bank watchdogs, however, say less-regulated financial institutions are filling the void and expanding at the expense of vulnerable, inner-city residents. As a result, they are relying on high-cost lending businesses for services traditionally provided by bank branches.
“When you don’t have banks going into poor communities, you’re going to wind up with places where there are a lot of predatory products,” said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Lending, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It’s not always the case — payday lending seems to target black and Hispanic neighborhoods regardless of income level or bank location — but it’s a real problem.”
Even in a digital age when banking is done online, the 99,000 bank branches are important barometers of economic health for thousands of communities. People in neighborhoods without banks are more likely to spend more of their money for basic financial transactions.
About 30 million people cash checks at businesses that aren’t banks, according to MSG CPA, a New York-based accounting and consulting firm. There are more than 13,000 check-cashing outlets, handling about $80 billion annually.
Under the Community Reinvestment Act, banks are encouraged to offer services in poor and minority neighborhoods. The vast majority of banks receive outstanding or satisfactory grades from regulators. The grades are important when banks apply to open new branches or acquire other banks.
James Ballantine, a senior vice president with the American Bankers Association, said banks that don’t comply can be required to enter into agreements with regulators, fined or even lose their charter.
Even so, small and large banks alike focused most of their efforts on wealthy and fast-growing neighborhoods as the housing boom reached its zenith. Banks now receiving billions in federal bailout loans led the charge, according to the AP’s analysis. The largest banks added nearly 6,800 branches between 2004 and 2008. Fewer than 900 of those branches wound up in minority neighborhoods.
Nearly 18 percent of those full-service bank branches were in minority neighborhoods in 2004, according to the FDIC. By last year, that number had dipped to 16 percent as banks worked harder at pursuing customers in distant, mostly white suburbs.
Perhaps no place illustrates the expanding chasm as well as Dallas, a major financial center. The typical family living in the University Park section has an annual income of $200,000. The neighborhood, just north of downtown, is 97 percent white. Two percent of its residents are poor. Since 2004, banks have added 16 new branches. The area now has 43 banks, or one for every 475 people.
The market apparently isn’t as big five miles away, where the typical south Dallas family earns about $17,000 annually. The neighborhood is 98 percent black. Half the people who live there are poor. In 2004, its residents could choose between a Bank of America branch and a Washington Mutual branch. By 2008, only the Bank of America branch remained, leaving the neighborhood with one bank for every 9,300 people.
The bank stands in the shadow of the State Fair of Texas, the giant Ferris wheel looming above the parking lot. The lack of financial services often takes a back seat to worries about crime, fear of unemployment, or simply having a place to live and food to eat.
George Murphy, 68, owns M&W Barber & Beauty Shop, a small business in the heart of the neighborhood. The lack of banks isn’t a problem for him because it only takes 30 minutes to walk to one, and a bus is also available.
“I don’t deal with checks,” he said. “My business is cash only.”
Even so, the line is long at the Ace Cash Express, less than two miles away. The sign reads, “No Bank Account Necessary.” Customers can have their paychecks automatically loaded on a prepaid Visa card for a fee. William Bates, 70, sits out front on his motorized scooter, waiting for his wife to get a money order.
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago,” he said, “there weren’t no banks or nothing over here.”