'Bank On Houston' Plans New Campaign To Attract More Low-Income Bank Customers

The City of Houston is preparing another push to get more people who "don't" use banks.. to use banks. Two years after the launch of the "Bank on Houston" program, nearly 40,000 people have become new bank customers. And, as David Pitman reports, the city controller's office says there's plenty of room to build on that.
Bank On Houston is an offshoot of the Bank On America program. It was started by the National League of Cities. In May of 2008, Houston was the first city in Texas to sign up. City Controller Ronald Green says the mission is to get people who use supermarkets and check cashing services for their banking needs to switch to actual banks.

"What we saw is that a lotta people who wanted to buy homes, a lotta people who really wanted to build wealth, did not have a customary relationship with a banking institution. And that probably forms the basis of building wealth, of building credit. And basically, making sure you don't carry a lot of cash around."

Green says people who don't use banks to handle their paychecks and keep their money become easy targets for theives. There are also the fees that check cashing companies charge.

"That's money that could go into a person's pocket. That's money that could go into their budget and help them pay their bills down. And the fees are totally exhorbitant."

Green says it's estimated 10 percent of Houston's population has no relationship with a bank. That number climbs to more than 50 percent in some minority neighborhoods. In many of cases, people either don't trust banks as a safe place to put their money. Or they had previous accounts closed after overdrawing them, and they think there's no way they could ever have an account again.

"What we want to let people know is that we have banking institutions that want to work with you, that want to help you get back on your feet. That want to help you get on your feet if you've never been there."

Bank On Houston partners with nearly 20 banks and credit unions to offer free or low-cost checking with an ATM or debit card. There's no minimum balance requirement. Green says the only thing prospective account holders need is a valid ID.

"Once they are signed up, the bank will reach out to them, and if they see they are overdrawn, and things of that nature, the bank will try to work with them, and make sure that they stay with a good, healthy banking relationship."

The program is paid for by donations from the participating banks, along with outside fundrasing. Various non-profit groups also offer free financial literacy programs to teach Bank On Houston customers how to use their accounts properly.

"There are some people that believe that, y'know, as long as I've got a check, I've got money. So part of that it to just educate people."

Green says when lower-income bank customers become financially literate, they eventually get to the point where they can take out loans to start a business, or buy a house. And that helps the city by increasing the tax base. Green's office is now working on a new outreach campaign to add at least another 10,000 customers to the 40,000 who've already signed up.

David Pitman, KUHF News: Morning Edition.
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David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

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