Noe Valley Voice December-January 2011

Big-Bank Protest Finds Sympathy in Noe

Circle and Sterling Among the Beneficiaries

By Corrie M. Anders

Circle Bank employee Olga Abdrakhimova had her hands full last month, and not just with plates of baked cookies for visitors. She was busy opening accounts for new customers, many of whom were moving their funds from larger banks.    Photo by Pamela Gerard 

Bank Transfer Day, an anti-big bank campaign launched in October and peaking on Nov. 5, was just the ticket for many depositors in Noe Valley. 

Dozens if not hundreds of neighborhood residents took part in the nationwide protest and switched their money from big banks to smaller financial institutions.

Fair Oaks Street resident Barbara May moved her accounts to Circle Bank, a ­Novato-based community bank with a branch on 24th Street two blocks from May’s old Bank of America branch. The switch was her way of taking a stand against corporate greed and impersonal financial institutions, she said.

“I’m very angry about this,” said May, 73, who was an activist during the 1960s and who now tutors algebra at a private school in the neighborhood. “I think the problem these days is that everyone feels powerless against these huge corporations.”

Anti-bank sentiment has been heating up since 2008, stoked by government bailouts, extravagant executive compensation, and a dramatic rise in home foreclosures.

But it reached fever pitch in late September, when Bank of America announced a plan to charge customers a $5 monthly fee to use its debit card, and other large banks prepared to follow suit.

Four weeks later, BofA dropped the fee idea, as did the other banks, and JPMorgan Chase Bank scrapped its own plan to charge a $10-a-month fee for checking accounts. By then, however, angry customers were already organizing the bank transfer drive and urging fellow citizens to shift their accounts to nonprofit credit unions and small banks.

Boom Time for Community Banks

The biggest local beneficiaries were Circle Bank at 3938 24th St. near Sanchez Street—where a steady stream of new customers nibbled on freshly baked cookies as they opened checking and savings accounts—and Sterling Bank & Trust, located at 3800 24th St. at the corner of Church Street.

Ron Mendoza, a customer service representative at Sterling’s Noe Valley office, said his bank, whose ownership is in San Francisco, had added “a few dozen” new protest customers in early November.

“They usually close out” their old accounts, “get a cashier’s check, and then they come over here,” he said.

Gary Tobin, a Circle Bank spokesperson, said “people literally were coming in and talking to us, going up to the larger banks, and coming back to open accounts.

“We’re looking for a record month and we’ll probably add upwards of 100 customers” in November, Tobin said. It “doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot because we are a small bank.”

Neither Circle nor Sterling charges debit card, ATM, or checking fees.

Support for Occupy Movement

Social inequity, rather than fear of excessive fees, was what prompted Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel, an attorney and neighborhood activist, to abandon his Wells Fargo branch at 4045 24th St. and start over at Circle Bank.

“I see it as in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement and sort of a new social movement developing that is resisting the power of large corporations in society,” said Gabel. “The large banks have been behind the foreclosure crisis and getting people thrown out of their homes.”

The protests also inspired the Noe Valley Farmers Market to move its deposits to Circle from the BofA branch at 4098 24th St., said Leslie Crawford, board member and co-founder of the market, which is celebrating its eighth anniversary in December.

The market’s “roots were for the purpose of social justice, and so when we can, we try and do things in alignment with our core values,” Crawford said. “We’d been thinking of doing this for a long time because we wanted a true community-based local bank. When this [Transfer Day protest] came up, it propelled us forward.”

Dolores Street resident Christopher Pepper moved his funds from Chase to New Resource Bank, a one-branch community bank in SoMa that was founded five years ago.

Pepper said he had become “increasingly dissatisfied” with the “impersonal feelings” at Chase and because the bank was “adding in extra fees” on his checking account.

At New Resource, Pepper says he has a bank that invests in the local community—especially in green businesses and small, environmentally friendly startups—and one that “treats me better as a customer.” The bank also contributed to a program at Balboa High School, where Pepper is a teacher.

Wells Fargo Speaks Up

Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo & Co. all refused to say whether or not they had lost customers at their Noe Valley operations.

“We have no comment on Bank Transfer Day,” said Colleen Haggerty, a spokes­person for BofA. “We report account information and deposit balances every quarter as part of our overall financial results, so can’t speak to any potential impact at this time.”

Wells Fargo spokesperson Ruben Pulido, however, defended the integrity of his bank. “I’m pretty proud of the work we’ve done,” he said, urging people not to lump all large financial institutions together.

He said Wells Fargo had modified 716,000 mortgages since 2009, made $10 billion in small business loans during the first nine months of this year, and last year contributed nearly $21 million to Bay Area schools and nonprofits. He added that fewer than 2 percent of the bank’s homeowner loans had proceeded to foreclosure in the past 12 months.

Many protesters around the country switched their funds to not-for-profit credit unions, most of which don’t have checking or card fees. But Noe Valley residents have scant opportunity to open an account at a credit union in the neighborhood. There’s only one—the Northern California Latvian Credit Union of San Francisco—and it has only 260 members.

“It’s for the Latvians,” said Sanita Vilgerte, office manager for the private concern at 425 Hoffman Ave. “Latvians who want to join already have.”