Oakland Struggles to Hold Banks Accountable 

When the city council awarded a lucrative contract to JP Morgan Chase, it required the bank to hand over data on its treatment of low-income residents. But that requirement never made it into the actual contract.

Councilmember Larry Reid is upset that Chase closed its only branch in his district.

Bert Johnson

Councilmember Larry Reid is upset that Chase closed its only branch in his district.

In the wake of the financial crisis, cities throughout California attempted to hold banks accountable for their predatory practices. Oakland, for example, tried to leverage its lucrative municipal banking contract to force banks to be more transparent about their impact on the city's communities, especially low-income neighborhoods where toxic subprime mortgages have caused thousands of foreclosures and a sluggish recovery. Oakland also asked banks interested in doing business with the city to make bigger commitments toward community investments, such as new housing and small business loans. But it's unclear if the city's efforts to force banks to treat the city's low-income communities fairly, and to reinvest in Oakland, have paid off.

Foreclosures continue to blight the city's flatlands. Usurious payday lending storefronts are more abundant in many neighborhoods than bank branches. And it appears that city staffers disobeyed the council last year by omitting key transparency requirements from the city's most recent banking contract with JP Morgan Chase, meaning that Oakland may have a difficult time obtaining detailed lending and investment data that city leaders demanded. All of this has city councilmembers and community advocates asking whether it's actually possible to hold banks accountable.

"It's frustrating," said Councilmember Larry Reid, whose district encompasses deep East Oakland, which was devastated by predatory mortgage loans. Between 2007 and 2011 — the nadir of the foreclosure crisis — there were more than 10,000 foreclosures in Oakland. Predatory mortgage loans were all too easy to obtain in the early and mid-2000s in Reid's district. And deep East Oakland is also under-banked when it comes to higher-quality financial products and services. There are few actual bank branches accessible to residents who want access to quality loans, savings accounts, and other financial services. Reid complained when JP Morgan Chase closed its only branch in his district earlier this month.

"There aren't a lot of banks out there," he said about the long stretch of International Boulevard from roughly 69th Avenue to the San Leandro border. "Now, my residents have to go all the way to San Leandro to do their banking." Reid said he recently contacted Chase and asked about the closure of the branch at 10800 International Boulevard in the Durant Square shopping plaza, but he couldn't get a straight answer. "The branch always seemed to be busy, more than the Chase in San Leandro."

There are, in fact, no bank branches on International Boulevard along the entire stretch that runs through Reid's district. There are a few ATMs operated by major banks, but they're hidden in liquor stores, and charge fees to anyone who is not a customer of the particular bank that owns the ATM. By contrast, there are numerous check cashing stores in the area — two are within walking distance of the now shuttered Chase branch. There are at least five more check cashing outlets along International Boulevard in Reid's district, as well as gold buyers and pawn shops.

Chase's closure of the Durant Square branch has Reid questioning why the city gave Chase the contract to handle the city's hundreds of millions in deposits and payments. Late in 2013, Oakland put its depository banking services contract out to bid. Five banks — Wells Fargo, Unionbank, US Bank, Citibank, and JP Morgan Chase — submitted bids for the $275,000-a-year, three-year contract. But the Oakland City Council wanted more than the lowest bidder: It wanted to select a bank that could demonstrate that it was doing the most to invest in Oakland and reduce foreclosures. Councilmembers were urged on by community activists like Richard Speigelman, a former-board member of Oakland Community Organizations. "We're of the opinion that Oakland needs a bank that's invested in the community, and we need the data to represent what that investment is," Speigelman told the council's finance committee in December 2013.

Liana Molina, a staff member with the California Reinvestment Coalition, said virtually all the major banks have done damage to cities like Oakland, but that Oakland could use its bank contracts to hold financial institutions more accountable, and to obtain useful data on how banks impact specific neighborhoods or demographic groups. "We have a vision to move a responsible-banking agenda forward," said Molina in an interview. "It's just very slow and the banks are very influential. They oppose these types of local ordinances, and stronger state regulations. They're very well-organized and powerful as a lobby."

Reid and Councilmember Desley Books wanted to pick Wells Fargo for Oakland's banking contract because its representatives had recently agreed to work with local housing officials to try to lower the number of mortgage defaults that the bank was foreclosing on. Wells Fargo also reported to the city that it had made $76.7 million in small business loans to Oakland-based companies in 2012. By contrast, JP Morgan Chase extended a mere $800,000 in small business loans that year.

"We ought to look at how these banks reinvest back in the city of Oakland," said Brooks at the 2013 finance meeting. "Chase had a significant number of foreclosures in the city of Oakland, but in that time, what is it they've done, more than just be here and take deposits from our people?"

City staffers recommended picking JP Morgan Chase, partly because Wells Fargo's municipal banking services had declined in recent years, they said. At the city council's final meeting in 2013, Councilmember Dan Kalb, who also preferred to give the contract to Wells Fargo, offered amendments to the resolution selecting JP Morgan Chase as the city's new banker. Kalb's written amendments directed staffers to negotiate a contract with the bank that would require Chase to "provide information on their lending, services and investment activities, specific to Oakland, especially in low and moderate income communities including business loans, home loans, media outreach and branch locations for historically undeserved communities."

"The city has a right to ask for something in return from its bank, besides just paying some money for the services," Kalb said in a recent interview. "There's a longstanding history that banks and financial institutions were absent when it comes to providing services and opportunities to lower- and moderate-income residents, and in Oakland, that's particularly true for people of color."

Kalb's amendments, which were approved by the full council, also required that lending, investments, and other data be provided down to the zip-code or census-tract level in order to allow the city to see how the bank had been treating lower-income households in the flatlands. Peter Villegas, then the vice president of corporate responsibility for Chase, promised the council just before the vote that Chase would hand over this data.

But it appears that city staffers never included terms in the contract to require Chase to provide this information. A copy of the contract obtained by the Express includes no clauses requiring Chase to provide the type of data specified in the council resolution. "If the council mandated it, where is that reflected in a signed document between the city and the bank?" said Kalb.

Oakland's treasurer Katano Kasaine said that despite the absence of these requirements in the contract, Chase will still provide Oakland with data on its local activities so that information can be presented to the council. The city attorney's office, which assists in drafting city contracts, did not respond to questions about the absence of these requirements in the Chase contract.

Suzanne Alexander, a representative for Chase bank, wrote in an email that Chase is "working with the city staff to provide the information so they can prepare a report for the council for early next year." But neither Chase nor treasurer Kasaine elaborated on what exactly Chase will provide to the city.

Paul Cobb, publisher of the Oakland Post, doubts the bank will provide the specific data requested by the council. Cobb pointed to the council's requirement that the bank reach out through local media to historically underserved communities as one reason for his skepticism. "They never did take out a single ad," said Cobb about his newspaper, which is the largest Black news publication in Oakland and the East Bay. "I didn't want to make it seem like it was just a play for ads," said Cobb, "but they have been absolutely rude. They said Oakland is too small to focus on."

"It's like pulling teeth — trying to get the banks to disclose this info," said Molina about the Oakland's contract with Chase. "We believe the banks have this information and it would be as simple as developing a software platform to report it to cities," said Molina. "But so far, it seems like they'd rather keep things hidden."

Kalb said he hopes that Chase will make good on its promise to hand over the data, despite the absence of such a requirement in the city's contract. "It's no shocker here we'd want this info," he said.

As to why Chase closed its deep East Oakland branch, Alexander wrote that the location was redundant. "Over the years, we have increased our branch network through acquisitions," wrote Alexander. "Sometimes that has led to branches with overlapping market areas. In this instance, there are two additional Chase branches less than one mile away."

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