Serving the Underserved

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Cheryl Cebula proudly leads a Community Development Financial Institution

By Judith Sears

In the past 20 years, several empty or rundown buildings in North Portland, Ore., have been redeveloped into affordable housing units and retail spaces, thanks in part to financing from Albina Community Bank. That brings great satisfaction to Cheryl Cebula, president and CEO of the $167 million-asset community bank.

“Those kinds of projects are really fun to do because you can see them revitalizing a neighborhood or a community,” Cebula says.

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Founded in 1995, Albina Community Bank’s original mission was to serve residential and commercial needs in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Cebula says the bank’s founding and ongoing mission is to focus on increasing economic opportunity and community development in underserved communities. To further serve those neighbors in Portland, the bank became one of approximately 120 commercial banks nationwide certified as a Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI.

A CDFI is a bank or other financing entity that the U.S. Department of the Treasury certifies as sufficiently committed to serving low- or moderate-income communities. In addition to community development training, the Treasury provides CDFIs with technical and financial assistance in the form of monetary awards in support of the work they do. Over the past 15 years, Albina Community Bank has received almost $6 million in awards as a CDFI for its community development and financing activities.

“We try to attract a clientele that is really interested in making a difference in local neighborhoods and putting their money to use in the local community as opposed to sending it someplace else.”
—Cheryl Cebula,
Albina Community Bank

To maintain its CDFI certification, Albina Community has committed itself to conducting at least 60 percent of its financing activities within distressed communities in its target market, Cebula explains. Where a bank locates its retail offices—Albina Community operates five retail offices that serve the greater Portland markets—is also important in whether it qualifies as a CDFI.

Albina Community Bank

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Portland, Ore.

Assets: $167 million

Retail locations: Five

Employees: 47

Founded: 1995

Website: www.albinabank.com

“The bank is now more a channel for socially conscious individuals and businesses in Portland,” Cebula says. “We try to attract a clientele that is really interested in making a difference in local neighborhoods and putting their money to use in the local community as opposed to sending it someplace else.”

Down to work
Various monetary awards, which function essentially as economic development grants, are potentially available to Albina Community as a CDFI. The Treasury provides those CDFI grants based on a financial institution’s track record for serving lower-income communities as well as its proposed use for the funds. Generally speaking, money the government provides to CDFIs must be deployed back into underserved communities in the form of loans or other financial services.

Working effectively in distressed neighborhoods has unique challenges and rewards, Cebula has found. To be successful requires banks to invest additional time and care with each borrower and client, she says. Albina Community has funded many commercial and industrial and service-related startups and small businesses, dozens of low-income housing construction projects, and consumer loans to people trying to repair their personal finances.
“It really runs the gamut,” Cebula says. “But our customers are oftentimes people who want to bank local, and Portland is very much a city that is committed to doing things locally.”

“We’re giving them new leads from our customer base, and we’re also getting customer leads from them.”
—Clay Dean, First Mid-
Illinois Bank & Trust

However, Albina Community is not a nonprofit organization. As a federally regulated commercial bank, the bank can’t bear any more risk or losses than any other state or federally chartered institution. To succeed, the bank also must serve a significant share of mainstream consumers and commercial clients. Cebula estimates the bank’s loan portfolio consists of approximately 60 percent commercial real estate loans, 30 percent commercial and industrial loans and 10 percent consumer loans. The bank expects every loan it makes to be repaid.

We are a commercial bank just like any other commercial bank, regulated in exactly the same way,” Cebula explains. “We have to follow all of the requirements in terms of maintaining a certain level of capital and exercise prudent underwriting when it comes to our lending.”

However, Albina Community often does take considerable extra time and steps, and acts more creatively, to provide many of its loans and financial services. To fund a Portland commercial, small-business startup with a first-time business owner, for example, the bank will often find a partner to share the risk. “Deals like this may cost more and you need more resources to do it. And it doesn’t generally lead to as much net income as a bigger bank might earn with higher volume, less flexibility in underwriting and more automation,” Cebula observes. “But I think in the long run, [working as a CDFI] is much more rewarding.”

The current economic demographics of many of Portland’s neighborhoods are rapidly shifting amid gentrification sparked by resurgence of inner-city housing market redevelopments, keeping Albina Community busy adjusting its service areas as well as adjusting its work to help revitalize new areas. Rockwood, an area with Oregon’s highest poverty level, is a community the bank is getting involved with in new ways. It’s where Albina Community is working with local community organizers to find ways to deliver banking services and financial education, Cebula says.
“Albina has made a commitment that we want to have a presence there,” she says.

Providing resources
Although Albina Community Bank by no means approves every loan request that it receives, it does consistently take more time assisting many of its customers to meet their individual banking needs. It also provides considerable financial education about topics such as building or rebuilding consumer credit and the nuts and bolts of homeownership. The bank also often connects its customers to other financial resources. It might direct an aspiring business owner to a nonprofit program that can help him or her write a business plan, for example, or work with the owner to make sure he or she is prepared for a new or expanded venture.

“It’s really important to get creative and be open to finding different ways to do things to try to make things work,” Cebula says.

Based on her firsthand experience, Cebula also believes that for any financial institution to successfully serve low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, it should recognize that the local residents and business owners in them may not feel comfortable in, and may even feel intimidated by, a pinstripe banking environment. Many consumers don’t want to feel judged because they don’t have financial resources, she says.

“Folks in these communities just want a chance like everybody else does,” she says. “They want an opportunity to see their idea come to fruition or build a better life for themselves. Those are the things that everybody wants.”

For Cebula, a former kindergarten teacher and a former senior manager at a megabank, every day as a community banker is an interesting and gratifying adventure. She says she is especially proud to lead a community bank that plays a vital role in financially building up entire neighborhoods as well as individuals, whether that involves someone just released from prison or an aspiring young entrepreneur.

“It’s important to give everybody a fair shake,” she says. “That probably sounds kind of Pollyanna, but I really think that that’s important.”

Becoming a CDFI

To become certified by the U.S. Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution, a bank or other organization must:

  • have a primary mission to promote community development;
  • provide both financial and educational services;
  • serve one or more defined target markets;
  • maintain accountability to one or more defined target markets; and
  • be a legal, non-governmental entity at the time of application.

For more information, visit cdfifund.gov.


Judith Sears is a writer in Colorado. Tim Cook, ICBA’s senior vice president –publications, contributed to this article.

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