CEO Spotlight: Linda Levy, Lower East Side People's FCU
Some people are just born with the cooperative spirit. Linda Levy, CEO of Lower East Side People’s FCU (LESPFCU), is one of those individuals. When asked why she chooses to work with New York’s underserved communities, Levy offers a brief, one-sentence answer that needs no further explanation: “It’s just what we do.”
Twenty-seven years ago, LESPFCU filled a void that was left when the last commercial bank pulled out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood. At the time, many of the city’s poor only had access to credit through predatory lenders. LESPFCU was able to provide a full range of affordable banking services while helping members establish credit histories and achieve their financial goals.
Levy has been there—in one form or another—every step of the way. She was originally hired as manager at LESPFCU, leaving after five years to take a position with the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. However, she continued serving on LESPFCU’s board, and in 2005 she returned to the credit union full time to fill the role of CEO. Since then, LESPFCU has continued to grow and expand its field of membership—but Levy has never lost sight of the credit union’s original values.
The subject of this month’s CEO Spotlight, Levy recently answered a series of questions on her history in the movement, her cooperative philosophies and more.
Q: How did you get involved with credit unions?
A: I came to credit unions from the food co-op world in 1986. I had been a community and co-op organizer and heard about this credit union being organized on the Lower East Side. It seemed like the perfect fit.
Q: You’ve been involved with LESPFCU since its inception, but you did leave for a short time. What drew you back to a leadership position with LESPFCU?
A: When I left my position as manager, LESPFCU was a 5-year-old credit union with barely $3 million in assets. I was working 70-80 hours each week and wanted to leave the city. I came back shortly after LESPFCU acquired the former Homesteaders FCU. It was an exciting period of growth.
Q: The Lower East Side has changed drastically in the past 27 years. How has your membership changed?
A: While the neighborhood has changed, I don’t really think it is as different as it appears on the surface. The Lower East Side has been gentrified, but it is still primarily a low-income community due to the prevalence of public housing. The area encompassed by our geographic field of membership has always been economically diverse. I think there are still as many low-income people as ever, but many of the middle-income residents have been replaced by high-income residents.
Q: What new challenges are small credit unions facing?
A: The economy has been a big challenge for us. For the low-income community, there hasn’t been much of an economic recovery yet. That’s certainly a big challenge for us in terms of loan demand and delinquency.
Credit unions also need to keep up with technology. That’s hard for us, and credit unions that are even smaller than we are, because we don’t have the resources to buy into these fancy technologies. The banks all have them. For us, it’s a huge investment.
Q: What are the biggest opportunities for credit unions?
A: The national disillusionment with big banks is the greatest opportunity. We need to be able to stand as a true alternative for those who are trying to get away from banks. This means having the most up-to-date technology in addition to great member service. Credit unions have never had a problem with the latter. We just need to be sure we can provide the high-tech aspect that everyone is looking for these days.
Q: LESPFCU has been participating in a “DREAMer” loan program to help cover the costs of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications. How did the idea to offer these loans come about, and how was it received within your credit union?
A: It came about when one of our member organizations—The New Economy Project—was approached by an anonymous donor who was willing to donate to a loan fund that would help cover the costs of the DACA applications. The New Economy Project then came to us and asked us if we would administer the loan fund.
As far as the reaction within our credit union, everyone was very positive. We’ve always worked with immigrant groups. We’ve always done everything we can to work with this community, so it was a natural thing for us to do.
Q: As a community development credit union, how else is LESPFCU involved with the community?
A: We provide financial education, counseling, small business technical assistance and free seminars, and youth financial education at local schools and youth programs.
Q: What is it about the credit union movement (and specifically community development) that you are so passionate about?
A: I’m a strong believer in the cooperative model and in asset-building for low income communities. Community development credit unions provide both of these, so it’s the perfect fit for me. I believe strongly in member control and the democratic principles of the credit union movement.
Q: What are some common misconceptions people have about credit unions? How are you working to break down those barriers?
A: People seem to think that it’s hard to join a credit union due to field-of-membership issues. We try to help everyone join a credit union. Our field of membership, for example, includes any low-income person in the city of New York. Many people don’t realize that.
Q: What are the plans for LESPFCU in 2014 and beyond?
A: We have always followed a plan for growth and expansion. We haven’t stopped growing yet, and that will continue.
We are planning to serve more underserved communities throughout New York City with our mobile bank branch, which we’re very excited about. We bought a bus to open a mobile branch with another credit union, and we’re going to be taking the bus to communities that have asked us to come in and open a brick-and-mortar branch. We can’t afford to do that right now, so with this we can go out to these communities, serve the people there and see if there is, in fact, enough interest to support an actual branch.
Right now, we’re looking at communities in Staten Island and northwest Queens that have very underserved communities. A lot of those people are paid in cash, so the fact that our branches aren’t near them makes it difficult for them to use our credit union. They can’t use direct deposit or mail us a check. So the mobile branch is sort of like our old-school technology answer.
Q: What do you do when you’re not at work?
A: In the summertime, I spend as much time as I can out on the North Fork of Long Island. I also have 16-year-old boy/girl twins and a four-month-old puppy who pretty much take up all my time when I’m not at work. I’m very involved with my kids’ schools and am a strong believer in progressive education.
About CEO Spotlight:
Each month, the CEO Spotlight column features credit union leaders from around the state, offering an inside look at their experiences and insights.