PHILADELPHIA — "You know that line about ‘if you build it, they will come?’" asked Oscar Torrealva, branch manager at the $1.3 billion TruMark Financial Credit Union's branch in the financially strapped Eastern North Philadelphia. Torrealva said that concept was nonsense, "at least when it comes to this sort of work. If you want to help low-income and underserved people start to use your financial services, you can't wait for them to walk in your door, you have to go to them."
Torrealva, a tall, intense looking Peruvian-American recounts how many meetings the credit union staff held with neighborhood groups and local nonprofit agencies in the first days after TruMark opened the branch two years ago. He also recalled how many street fairs the staff attended, how many school presentations they made and how many small businesses they visited.
"People will not trust you until you show that you are not coming at them from outside but are really here, part of their world and that they can know you," he added.
With their history of being organized by people who already share some sort of common bond, whether in the workplace, geographic area, place of worship or other interest, the notion that they might be seen as "outsiders" in a low-income community can surprise and even rankle credit unions seeking to serve a new low-income area, according to Pablo DeFilippi, director of membership development for the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions and former executive with the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union in New York.
Nonetheless, if a credit union wants a branch in a low-income or underserved area to succeed, it needs to acknowledge that particular gap and take steps to address it, he said.
That gap looked particularly wide when it came to the part of North Philadelphia where TruMark located its branch.
At least 29% of the area’s residents lived beneath the poverty line in 2009, compared to 12% for the Philadelphia metro area overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Forty percent of the area's children lived in poverty, compared to 16% in the metro area generally. Almost 24% of residents had no high school diploma.
The gap might have been too great for TruMark to overcome except that the area also had already established the sort of organization that DeFilippi said almost any credit union seeking to establish itself in an underserved area would need to have.
The Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha was founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican-born activists, primarily in the health field, who recognized their community’s need for organization and outreach if it was ever going to be considered part of the Philadelphia mainstream. In the more than 40 years since, the organization has grown to a leading community development organization that also offers health services, housing services and educational services. And it became the chief sponsor of TruMark's arrival in the area. The organization led the effort to find a financial institution willing to put a branch in the economically embattled neighborhood after being rejected by several banks before finally finding TruMark and financing most of the construction of the credit union’s branch.
But even with as strong and well-known a backer as APM, Torrealva pointed out, TruMark staff still had to go to the people of the neighborhood and introduce themselves and show them why working with the CU would be different than working with a bank. They also had to show they were willing to listen to the community about the sorts of products and services they needed the most.
"Sometimes there are some assumptions about the products and services that lower income communities are going to need most," DeFilippi said. "In some cases, those assumptions might be on target, but in many cases they will not be. Once a credit union meets the community it wants to serve, the next step is to listen to what the community wants."
In TruMark's case, Torrealva said, the community was clear that it wanted a CU branch that looked like TruMark's other branches and that it wanted the community to have access to the same products and services as other branches. That meant that when TruMark laid out and decorated the interior of the branch, the credit union made sure it picked up on familiar themes, decorations and furnishings, Torrealva explained. The CU also made sure that the full range of products and services were available, including mortgages and credit cards, but not remittances, an item that many credit unions believe they almost have to offer in underserved areas.
"Our most popular products are the share-secured credit cards," Torrealva said, noting that the card allows CU members to have access to credit and build up their credit scores while exposing the CU to little or no additional risk. By contrast, he reported that the branch does not offer remittance services, noting that the money transfer service did not score very high in member surveys and that there were other, lower cost options for that service in the neighborhood.
Once a credit union has met and listened to its members or potential members from a low-income area about what financial products and services they want and need, the next task is to provide them–and to do so with patience, DeFilippi explained.
"The likelihood is that the CU is going to find itself with members whose basic knowledge about financial services and how use them are all over the map," said DeFilippi. Helping low-income members access and use those products and services may take markedly longer than with other members.
Torrealva said this has become very evident in the area of checking accounts, one of the credit union’s most basic services. In many cases, the credit union finds that its low-income members will not be able to open a checking account because of a black mark with one of the check account qualification programs such as Chex Systems. But where other potential members might not have black marks at all, or might be better positioned to correct any they had, TruMark often has to work with members to help them understand and rectify the negative report.
It is not unusual for a new member at the branch to not be able to open a checking account, Torrealva explained, but instead of simply denying the application, TruMark will help the member find out where the outstanding balance remained and get it paid off.
TruMark has added 1,300 members through the branch, Torrealva reported, and although the branch still lagged others in terms of deposits and loan balances. it has outpaced the others in terms of impact.
DeFilippi encouraged mainstream credit unions that are considering serving an underserved area more deeply to take the time to put the three steps of meeting, listening and then working with low-income members into effect. Over time, he pointed out, these initial hurdles will diminish and the credit union will find it has become an integral part of a community that is both hungry for growth in general and growth in financial services in particular.