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Opinion | Paul McMorrow

OneUnited bailout didn’t help Boston

MUCH OF the discussion of OneUnited Bank’s standoff with the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church has focused on the terrible optics: A bailed-out minority-owned bank is threatening to foreclose on a congregation with ties to the abolition movement. Yet as a group of Boston ministers works feverishly to stir up a depositor revolt, and as the church’s auction date looms, there’s more at play than just the awful symbolism of this one case. The bigger issue is OneUnited’s dubious commitment to the communities it’s supposed to represent.

Founded and headquartered in Boston, OneUnited was teetering on the verge of closure in October 2008. But, at the urging of powerful Bay State politicians like Barney Frank, the Treasury pumped $12 million in bailout funds into the bank. Local leaders saw the need to preserve a minority-owned bank to serve neighborhoods and populations that lenders had historically overlooked.

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For most of the last decade, though, OneUnited has been a Boston bank in name only. Federal banking regulators have repeatedly questioned OneUnited’s meager Boston loan book. The one fig leaf that kept regulators at bay was OneUnited’s willingness to do business with churches and other social-service organizations; take that away, and what’s left is a bank that was saved from insolvency even though it has long lacked any significant investments in low-income and minority communities.

“Very poor.’’ “Quite low.’’ “A significant concern.’’ Those are three assessments of OneUnited’s Boston-area lending book, lifted from three separate reports by FDIC examiners on the bank’s compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act. Those three exams cover nearly a decade of lending. They span two recessions and a housing boom. And they are uniformly, unsparingly critical of OneUnited’s banking activity in Boston.

The Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to serve low- and moderate-income borrowers in communities where the banks do business. It was passed in 1977 to combat so-called redlining; banks that took deposits in poor urban neighborhoods had to make loans there, too. CRA compliance shouldn’t even be in question for OneUnited, the nation’s largest black-owned bank, which name-checks the civil rights movement on its website. But the reports on OneUnited depict a bank that’s all but refusing to do business in Boston and Miami, two of its three core markets.

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Suffolk County deed records show that OneUnited has made just three loans tied to a Boston real estate purchase since the beginning of 2005. None of the properties appears to be owner-occupied. The bank wrote mortgages on a Charlestown condo and a Roxbury triple-decker in 2005, and it financed the purchase of a Dorchester apartment building in 2008. Throw in a couple of mortgage refinancings and those now-infamous loans to the Charles Street AME, and that’s the extent of OneUnited’s Massachusetts portfolio.

In 2008, when the country’s financial system was unraveling, banks financed nearly 10,000 loans to Massachusetts borrowers in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. But OneUnited owned only two of those 10,000. In 2009, local loan volume to low- and moderate-income areas rose above 11,600, but OneUnited didn’t make a single one of them.

The bank’s failure to lend in Boston wasn’t an unusual departure; it’s a longstanding pattern.

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In their most recent report on the bank, FDIC examiners marveled at OneUnited’s “minimally staffed’’ lending department, and made a point of saying that tough economic conditions and a cash crunch at the bank did not “fully explain, or justify, the bank’s failure’’ to meet basic CRA standards. The bulk of OneUnited’s lending business is concentrated around Los Angeles. But even when those mortgages are lumped in with OneUnited’s business back east, its loan book is far lighter than it should be, given the bank’s size. This criticism spans a decade. The bank’s lack of lending activity wasn’t a recession-driven departure; it’s a longstanding pattern.

This makes the favorable terms of OneUnited’s federal bailout especially hard to justify. The Treasury didn’t demand stock warrants from community development banks like OneUnited, meaning the Treasury didn’t dilute OneUnited executives’ own stakes in the bank.

OneUnited also has no legal obligation to make interest payments on its bailout money. The Treasury’s running tally of OneUnited’s interest bill - it now stands at $1.8 million, after a skipped payment last month - is illusory. In reality, the bank is sitting on $12 million in free taxpayer money. It got this free money because policymakers in Washington bought into OneUnited’s mythology - of a bank pumping credit into communities other lenders wouldn’t touch. But a myth is all it was.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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