When Stephen Green joined the staff at Albina Community Bank, there was no mistaking that the bank was steeped in the community.
“I was in for Albina when I heard the question in the interview, ‘Where do you volunteer in Northeast Portland?’” Green said. “That said thousands of words about the organization.”
Green is an entrepreneur and worked at Albina Community Bank twice over the years, most recently as the vice president and market manager, working within commercial banking and business lending.
During his time with Albina, Green remembers offering financial literacy courses to members of the community, seeing small businesses grow from garages to national companies and the “spiffin up MLK event,” where employees and members of the community would clean along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the city’s Northeast neighborhood.
Albina Community Bank was founded in 1995 after buying the black-owned bank American State Bank. The Albina bank was named for the neighborhood that was once the heart of African-American life in Oregon.
On Feb. 1, the signs outside of the bank were replaced with bright orange ones, the final step in the merger of Albina Community Bank with Beneficial State Bank.
The bank was one of the last vestiges of pre-gentrification Northeast Portland.
“Albina is known for really being a neighborhood-based bank that really deeply engages the people in those neighborhoods,” said Randell Leach, president and chief operating officer of Beneficial State Bank.
In 2013, Beneficial bought 90 percent of Albina Community Bank. Late last year, they bought the rest.
Beneficial State Bank was founded in 2007 by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer and the bank’s co-CEO Kat Taylor, Steyer’s wife, with the vision of creating a social justice bank.
Beneficial has merged with four banks, all of which have strong missions of serving critical markets. Each of the deals was voluntary and Taylor said they were all in need of some capital strength after the Great Recession.
“We’re definitely better together than we could be apart,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Beneficial tries to achieve three key goals: meet third-party audited social justice and environmental goals without doing harm, still be a bank that competes well in the marketplace and produce a resilient profit for growth.
The merger with Albina expands the Oakland-based bank’s footprint across the West Coast with 17 locations in California, Oregon and Washington. It employs about 270 people.
"We pay 150 percent of the living wage as regionally calculated by the MIT living wage calculator," Taylor said. "We would love to pay more than that. We want to pay people to live and not just to work."
Taylor said she was affected by the Civil Rights Movement as a college student, which led her to study socially responsible financial institutions. She decided to explore what her role could be in helping underserved communities and ending discriminatory loan practices. Beneficial State Bank is her response.
Beneficial has a unique model, Taylor said. It is owned by a foundation.
“The bank itself goes out and does good work in the community and the profits from that are for the foundation,” Leach said, “which is actually owned and governed in the public interest.”
The bank has already modified some of its products and services, including lowering its overdraft fees and changing the way debits are taken out of customer’s accounts — starting with the lowest amount first to prevent account overdrafts.
Those who are familiar with the bank talk about some of the work they have seen them do in the Oakland community. And supporters of the bank would like to see that work happen in Oregon as well.
“There was definitely an authentic trust between Albina and the black community,” Green said.
As the banking industry is increasingly dominated by a few big players. Small banks like Beneficial’s success in Oregon may depend on its ability to build on that trust.
“I would say that the opportunity is there for them to step into that and do that in a big way … in a very different way. Portland is a very different place then it was in 1995,” Green said. “We have the largest black business and black population in Portland’s history and we’re not all living in just North, Northeast Portland."
Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration
Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more "Sharing America" coverage here.