Gregg Brown Helps Secure Financial Future on the South Side

April 27, 2009

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As part of Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham, we're profiling visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Today we bring you the story of Gregg Brown, who runs a community credit union on the South Side, where financial institutions have long been either scarce or predatory. To bank the unbanked is a big challenge, with many risks. But Brown is intent on growing his customer's savings and strengthening his community's values.

JAMECA TOWNSEND: That's odd I usually I have my little slip – or something.

Jameca Townsend is a small woman with a tiny voice and an even tinier purse. Even so she's having trouble finding her bank book. She's at the South Side Community Federal credit union to get a check for Sunday services.

MCRAY: Apostolic. TOWNSEND: It's not an every day word (laughs) MCRAY: Apostolic what? TOWNSEND: Church of God MCRAY: and? TOWNSEND: 15 dollars MCRAY: for you? TOWNSEND: For them! Oh, nothing for me

The credit union is tucked away at the far end of a strip mall, right off the Dan Ryan at 55th and Wentworth. The entrance is hard to spot. Still, there's a steady stream of customers in and out and the atmosphere is pretty homey for a bank. That's part of the appeal for Townsend.

TOWNSEND: Gregg had a stack of books here and I asked him if I could read one. It was very spiritual and I've just felt connected every since.

GREGG BROWN: It's not just a brick or mortar or the money but it's the pride it's the camaraderie it's the concern for one another.

Gregg Brown is the CEO of Southside, one of only two community development credit unions in Chicago. Some credit unions serve employees of a particular company, or the members of a church or other organization. At South Side, the potential pool is much bigger. Anyone who works or lives, worships or volunteers on the South Side of Chicago can become a member. Brown is most intent on serving the population that other credit unions and traditional banks often view as too risky: low income people.

BROWN: I think sometimes the banking community would prefer a higher income clientele. Because it is a monumental task serving a population that has been disenfranchised for the most part. But that is our mission.

About one-third of Brown's customers are opening a bank account for the first time. Transactions are small – Brown says the average account ranges from $50-100. Doing business with people who normally rely on currency exchanges or pay day loan stores is risky. Brown tells me about one woman who defaulted.

BROWN: I worked with her to get the little $500 loan and then, she never made a payment! We can't afford to take those kinds of hits.

But that's what the credit union is there to do. All the deposits they take in go back out in the form of low-interest loans to members. Lately many of those are home loans, for people seeking to refinance their way out of adjustable rate or predatory mortgages.

That's the case with Barbara Littleton. She's a long-time homeowner, with a good job and education. Still when she sought money to do some home improvements, she says she got tricked into signing a bad loan.

BARBARA LITTLETON: When I called them that Monday to tell him I'd changed my mind his office was closed his number was changed we never found him again.

Barbara eventually heard about South Side where she refinanced at a rate lower than her original mortgage. She's still shocked by what happened to her.

LITTLETON: I felt so stupid (laughs). So I didn't tell anyone I did that until after I got it resolved.

Brown wants to help more people in Littleton's situation and he knows there's plenty of demand. But federal regulators require him to keep real estate loans to about a quarter of the credit union's total assets. So he needs to cultivate new members.

At weekly seminars Brown brings in experts to discuss foreclosures or more ambitious topics, like the green economy. But he also takes the opportunity to plug the credit union. Today his message is simple – stop putting money into banks that fail.

BROWN: They've squandered our money. And now they want us to bail them out. But if you want to stay down to the earth, stay green, don't take it away. Keep it here. And watch it grow.

The audience is responsive and sticks around to chat afterwards. Turns out not everyone is there by choice. Like police officer Melvin Hargrett.

MELVIN HARGRETT: I was dragged here by my wife! She woke me up this morning and told me we're going to this green workshop.

Still Brown proved persuasive - Hargrett and some other attendees walked out of the credit union as members.

The crowd reflects changes in the community - it's becoming more mixed income. For Brown that's a return to the neighborhood he grew up in, where his father did business.

BROWN: He had a practice on 43rd and King Drive for about 50 years. And he would always lower his prices for dental services to accommodate people in the community

To Brown there's a direct line between his father's practice and his own:

BROWN: To the degree we are successful we're able to mainstream a population to participate more in the economic system overall.

Gregg Brown is convinced he can make that happen. But in his world change will come slowly, one small deposit and one new member at a time.