By Bekah McNeel
City Council unanimously passed Councilman Diego Bernal’s proposed city ordinance to regulate short-term credit lenders.
“This is the fastest running long sheet I’ve ever seen,” quipped Mayor Castro, “You’re not in quite as big of a doghouse, Diego.”
The mayor was referring to the list of citizens signed up to speak for or against the proposal. As expected, turnout was high: 114 people signed up for their minute at the mic. However most of those people granted their time to pre-selected speakers who spoke on behalf of a group, which gave them 3 minutes total.
Both sides showed up in force. Lisa Rodriguez, Associate State Director of AARP, was wearing one of the many red and white stickers that read, “Texans Deserve Better,” in support of the ordinance. According to Rodriguez, the pro-ordinance contingency showed up in four busloads, while those who opposed the ordinance arrived in only three. Four buses or three, that’s a lot of people crammed into the Municipal Building.
AARP strongly supports Bernal’s proposal, and they were joined by a diversity of voices from religious, civic, and non-profit organizations ranging from the Archdiocese of San Antonio to the City Council of Dallas.
The opposition to the ordinance was represented entirely by professionals from the payday lending industry. They too wore stickers with various slogans, including “I serve my customers,” and “I can make my own credit decisions.” These slogans well-summarized the arguments they would present. Noticeably absent from the list of speakers, however, were their clients. The industry’s lobbyist was present.
Supporters made their argument based on calls for justice and protection of the vulnerable. Deacon Pat Rogers read a letter from Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller urging City Council to pass this ordinance to keep with “our city’s spirit of justice and compassion.”
One opposition argument was articulated by Debra Reyes, the lobbyist for Advance America. Her profile of the average short-term loan client was in stark contrast to those the ordinance is designed to protect: Age 42, income of $54,ooo/annually. Fifty percent are homeowners and their education level is comparable to the national average. In other words, the middle class. Reyes reported that, according to an in-house survey conducted by the short-term credit lenders, their clients overwhelmingly agreed that “City council should not be telling them how to spend their money.” (This was the language supplied by the survey, consumers were asked whether they agree or disagree with a statement like: “City council should tell citizens how to spend their money.” With clever wording, a person can skew any survey.)
The Industry’s argument that they are serving primarily the middle class clashed with the testimonies of Ace Cash Express managers Maria Reyes and Leticia Canning who said that they were serving people who could not get loans anywhere else. Debra Reyes’s claim that 50% were homeowners means that those customers would have probably qualified for a loan somehow.
Receive updates on the local impact of coronavirus in your inbox every morning.
Industry representatives also claimed not to target low-income areas. There was a loud snicker from behind me, though I do not know whom to attribute this, It can be infered that it was a member of the supporting “team.”
The supporters spoke for “people who cannot get loans anywhere else” as well, said Kara Rodriguez, of the National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders. Rodriguez vowed to work with the city to seek alternative solutions for those in need of small, short-term loans. Gloria Delgado of Consumer Credit Counseling Services, and Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed spoke of assistence and education initiatives while the opposition appealed to the City Council to yield regulatory action to the Texas State Legislature. They said that the state regulations have been effective and that the city need not interfere.
“We support State Regulations,” Debra Reyes said.
“Yeah, because they are weak …” Lisa Rodriguez said at the back of the room.
While both sides presented numerous anecdotal stories of the triumphs and travesties of short-term credit loans, the closest those attending the meeting came to hearing from real clients was from a video brought by the opposition and produced in Austin (where short term lending is already regulated). This video depicted clients saying that the seven-day waiting period imposed by the ordinance had been inconvenient for them and caused them to be late on their bills.
Dallas City Councilman Jerry Allen followed this by saying that for every one of those who claim to be inconvenienced, he has “letter after letter saying the opposite.” Dallas has also imposed lending regulations, and Allen urged San Antonio to act with pride and step up in defense of its people.
City Council agreed. The vote was unanimous, with council members Elisa Chan and David Medina absent.
More from the Rivard Report on predatory lending and the, now approved, initiative:
Making the Market Square: How a City can Protect its own by Councilman Diego Bernal
Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey as an International Travel Consultant. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.