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Public housing residents in Astoria and Long Island City are being nudged away from check−cashing businesses and toward the financial mainstream by a coalition of community activists, elected officials and municipal agencies.
The Amalgamated Bank branch at 21st Street and 36th Avenue is now accepting residents’ rent payments to the New York City Housing Authority, the first bank in Queens to offer the service. Officials hope this will reduce the amount of fees residents pay to check cashiers and encourage them to open their own bank accounts.
Douglas Apple, head of NYCHA, said that half of the 18,000 residents of Astoria, Queensbridge and Ravenswood pay their rent by taking their paychecks to a check−cashing store.
“They do this because they don’t have any other options in their community,” he said.
City Councilman Eric Gioia (D−Sunnyside), who with state Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D−Sunnyside), helped bring the bank to the area a year ago, praised the program.
“When you’re out of the financial mainstream, you have no shot,” Gioia said. “You can’t get a credit card, let alone a mortgage. Amalgamated coming to the neighborhood is really transformative.”
Nolan emphasized the importance of revitalizing all parts of a community.
“You cannot neglect the financial side,” she said.
The new program augments the efforts of the East River Development Corp. to educate public housing residents financially.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor, director of the nonprofit group and pastor of the Center for Hope International Church in Long Island City, said he grew up in the projects and often rode his bike along the cobblestone streets in western Queens.
“The only financial icon I ever saw was a check−cashing place,” he said. “And it was right next to a liquor store”
The Amalgamated branch was brought to the area after Taylor and tenant leaders in the projects organized a march to protest the lack of banking options in the area in 2005. Shortly afterwards, the state established an incentive program to encourage banks to open in lower−income areas. The Amalgamated branch took over a vacant Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
“We went from chicken to checking,” Taylor said, noting 208 bank accounts have been opened by public housing residents in the year since the bank was launched.
Queensbridge resident Annie Norman, 70, said many of her neighbors did not have bank accounts and those who did were forced to go elsewhere to conduct transactions.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. There are a lot of people who took the bus to the bank on Steinway [Street] or Broadway. This is so convenient.”
Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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