While some Bushwick residents have been thanking our lucky stars that we finally have Bank of America on Knickerbocker, others have been managing just fine in our branch-forsaken neighborhood. Bushwick may be short on financial services but we’re long on community spirit, and some of this spirit is on loan from the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union.
The Cooperative is nearing its tenth anniversary on Myrtle Avenue, where director Samira Rajan has seen Bushwick at its most resilient. In the current prolonged emergency, she’s also shown homeowners, entrepreneurs, and plain old three-figure savers a local alternative to the financial giants that were too big to fail.
Rajan, a Queens native, has under her belt a past life as an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank and a Harvard Masters in public policy. Her choice to – in current parlance – get back to Main Street in Bushwick has been a personally fulfilling one, and drew recognition last year with a spot on Crain’s 40 Under Forty. Samira took on an unpaid internship with the Brooklyn Cooperative soon after founder Jack Lawson opened its doors on Myrtle Avenue in 2001.
The credit union kicked off with an initial capitalization of $50,000 in grant funds and a small number of deposits from community members. Rajan stuck around, eventually taking on the CEO role, and has seen these initial assets grow to more than $11 million today. A second location opened on a Bed-Stuy block of Myrtle in 2008.
If Rajan’s goal in joining a tiny credit union straight out of Harvard was to "see where the money hits the streets," as she told Crain’s, then Bushwick has certainly given her an education over the last ten years. "It all started on the L train," she explains. "People were moving out along the subway line, so housing prices went up, but incomes didn’t." This combination made Bushwick a hot market for sub-prime lending; in the housing bubble circa 2007, 35% of mortgages in Bushwick were sub-prime.
The inevitable outcome circa 2009 was a rate of more than 64 foreclosure filings per 1000 owner-occupied units, the highest in any community district in the city. "And it’s not going away," Rajan adds. With the market crash came "phone calls, walk-ins, and then some guy put us on the 311 referral list for callers facing foreclosure. All of these homeowners were calling asking for help, and it felt terrible having to tell them that it wasn’t something we do." So the Cooperative brought in two lawyers in 2009 and 2011, who now work full-time on foreclosure prevention. The pair have since been hard at work counseling homeowners and arranging loan modifications.
Given Bushwick’s standing at the top of the foreclosure chart, it’s all the more impressive to hear that the Brooklyn Cooperative has no defaults in its first-mortgage loan portfolio. Samira gives credit to the loan officers, who are engaged with the whole lending and underwriting process and work extensively with each borrower. "In most bank branches, the loan officer is considered a retail position – they’re there to sell you a product," Rajan says. "I think we do a good job of knowing our members and managing expectations."
Real estate mortgages make up about half of the Brooklyn Cooperative’s lending, with the remainder in small business loans and unsecured consumer loans. Small businesses are the other side of the credit union’s efforts in community development, and it serves hundreds of members from corner stores to restaurant ventures like Northeast Kingdom and Guacuco.
Business adviser Rebecca Pear, who joined the Cooperative last year, offers tax prep starting at $50 and free consulting on business plans, recordkeeping, and certification as a Minority- or Woman-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE). The Cooperative is the largest non-commercial tax preparer in Brooklyn. It’s also the only site in Bushwick taking part in the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, and under this the office prepared more than 3500 free individual and family filings this tax season. "It got a little crazy in here last month," Pear admits.
Even in May, the small bank’s tellers were kept busy by a steady stream of afternoon visitors. Pear’s first year with the Cooperative has been a big one, with membership increasing by 17%, to 7,500 members. "I think it’s mostly our new checking products that are bringing in so many people," she surmises. Checking is not traditionally a big part of credit unions, but easy and accessible accounts have become an essential part of standing up to the big banks with their conspicuous ATM networks.
Brooklyn Cooperative has taken the unusual approach of working out a no-fee partnership with AllPoint, a 43,000-strong supplier of commercial ATMs to city bodegas, McDonald’s franchises, Duane Reade and Walgreens drug stores, and similar locations that are even closer to many Bushwick households than Knickerbocker’s Bank of America outpost (by comparison, BoA has a network of 18,000 machines).
Reaching out to the whole neighborhood is what the Brooklyn Cooperative is all about, whether to new Latin American immigrants through joint programs with Make the Road New York or to independent creatives through the Freelancers Union and Fractured Atlas. There’s just one rule of thumb, Pear says. "We are in the business of community development, so we want members who are part of the neighborhood. We follow a policy of ‘live, work, or worship’ in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy." To this list director Rajan adds volunteering, having family, or being part of an organization headquartered here.
"Generally speaking, there should be some tie that brings you back to the ‘hood," Rajan says.