CRA Guerrilla Fighter, Bruce Marks

After a raucous Senate Banking Committee hearing exploring Fleet Financial Group’s record on lending to minority communities, the Federal Reserve Board governors agreed to consider taking action against the New England banking giant. Among the community activists present at that February 1993 meeting with the governors was Bruce Marks, Director of the Boston-based Union Neighborhood Assistance Corporation (UNAC) known for waging guerrilla warfare against banks that fail to meet fair lending standards. When Marks and company returned six weeks later, only to be informed that the governors had decided not to act on the matter, the group took action of their own by rushing the front steps of the Reserve and blocking the entrance.

As the group of roughly 60 stood at the front door, a limousine pulled up, and out stepped a man resembling Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The protesters naturally seized upon the opportunity to make their case with the head of the Fed. They ran over and surrounded the car, overwhelming the secret service agents and the Greenspan look-alike. The man turned out to be not Greenspan but Italy’s minister of finance. Although the group would have preferred a face-to-face meeting with Greenspan, mistakenly accosting the Italian finance minister was only a minor embarrassment for Marks, who regularly uses high-pressure tactics in his crusade against redlining banks.

Marks had attended the Senate Banking Committee hearing with 400 angry residents from various states, many armed with tales of injustice wrought by Fleet. The protesters, who included gospel singers and Baptist ministers, sang and chanted as they paraded in wearing bright yellow T-shirts depicting a loan shark.

“It was like a gospel revival meeting,” Marks said. “I don’t know if ever there’s been a committee meeting where 400 people just took it over.”

The meeting even drew heavy attendance from many often absent legislators, according to Marks, and those presiding over the hearing grilled the Fleet executives. Although no direct sanctions resulted, the hearing was a step in a series of actions by Marks and other activists that ultimately led Fleet to agree to an $8 billion initiative for low and moderate-income borrowers.

One of the keys to the Fleet agreement was the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). UNAC’s campaign against Fleet had begun in 1991, when Fleet was in the process of acquiring the Bank of New England and had to show that it had met its CRA requirements. Marks said the CRA is important in such cases because it provides a framework for what banks are required to do. The CRA, he said, allows the question of “if” everyone should have access to credit to become “how?” and “in what ways?”

“CRA says credit is the lifeblood of the community,” Marks continued. “Every individual and community has the right to credit – it’s what allows communities to grow and prosper.”

Using the CRA effectively is not rocket science, Marks said, but it requires good organizing and a willingness to dig in for the long haul. The idea is to bombard lenders with the threat of negative publicity until they’re worn down.

“You’ve got to have a long attention span,” Marks said. “Because everybody’s got a breaking point.”

For Fleet, the last straw came when Marks and 15 colleagues infiltrated a speaking engagement by Fleet Chairman Terrance Murray in the fall of 1993. Murray was addressing a reception for leaders of the finance community, sponsored by the Harvard Business School at the Newton, Massachusetts, Marriot. Marks said that after he and several others stood up, confronted Murray, and “educated” the audience on Fleet’s misdeeds, Fleet finally agreed to negotiate.

Not only did Marks end up negotiating a lending agreement, but Fleet also made UNAC administrator of a $140-million loan program for low- and moderate-income homebuyers. While it may seem odd for UNAC to end up with that role, the founding of the organization followed a somewhat similar course.

In 1988, UNAC was founded as administrator of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union’s housing trust fund, after Marks and colleagues helped mount a national campaign to change federal labor law. Marks had become involved with the campaign after meeting Dominick Bozzoto, president of the Boston-area Hotel Workers Union. The union had been the first in the county to collectively bargain for housing benefits, but the right was not legally recognized at the time. Marks said that when his outside the beltway group went to Washington, pushing to change federal law, bureaucrats there said, “You can’t do it, that’s not how Washington works.” But in 1990, President Bush signed legislation that allows unions across the country to bargain for housing benefits.

Despite his successes, Marks – who said he earned an MBA in finance from New York University and worked for the Federal Reserve Board of New York in order to “learn the enemy” – has made enemies of some Boston-area community leaders who seem likely allies. The list of people who are less than enthusiastic about Marks’ methods includes Reverend Charles Stith of the Organization for New Equality and Massachusetts state Senator Dianne Wilkerson. The Boston Globe quoted Senator Wilkerson as calling Marks “the kind of person who would throw a Molotov cocktail and then run in with a fire extinguisher and declare himself the hero for putting out the fire.”

Rather than being disturbed by the criticisms, Marks appears to relish them. He refers to his critics as “self-appointed” community leaders and charges that their criticisms stem from the fact that UNAC’s successes have shown them to be “totally ineffective.”

“Let them tell all the people who’ve purchased homes [because of UNAC’s program] that they didn’t deserve homes – we’d love to have that public debate,” Marks said, adding that his critics are more interested in their egos than winning real benefits for the community.

As he moves to expand his fair lending enterprise to offices in Jacksonville, Florida; Washington, DC; New York City; Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Hartford, Conn.; and Birmingham, Alabama, Marks is careful to attribute the success of fair lending campaigns mainly to the strength of people in the communities. He said that while the CRA is an aid in such campaigns, the strength of people is crucial, because “you only get what you’re strong enough to take.”

Marks added that once banks are forced to offer low- and moderate-income people fair access to credit, they come forward and concede that investing in communities is a good idea, and good for business. UNAC’s role, according to Marks, is to get banks’ attention in order to show that there is a constructive alternative to exploiting and excluding people. “But the way you get their attention,” he said, “is to be in their face all the time.”

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