Lehigh Valley to benefit from Santander Bank's $11 billion community investment

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Lehigh Valley nonprofits will reap the benefits of an $11 billion, five-year pledge for community investments by Santander Bank, which in turn will help more of its clients with increased access to loans for homes and businesses.

Bank executives at Boston-based Santander announced the pledge Monday of its “Inclusive Communities” plan across Pennsylvania and seven other states. The bank said in a news release that it plans to increase its Community Reinvestment Act activity by 50 percent and triple its investment in charitable grants to organizations. In addition, the bank plans to open 10 new branches through 2021.

Gwen Robinson, the bank’s director of corporate and social responsibility, could not provide details Tuesday about how the Lehigh Valley will benefit. A spokeswoman later said the bank expects to include program elements covering mortgage products, small business loans and community outreach.

Robinson stressed bank officials will work with a statewide advisory board of community officials. “The lending, the investment and grant activity, there are specifics in Pennsylvania that we will make sure are allocated across the state,” she said.

Santander operates 148 branches statewide, including 14 in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area. It ranks eighth in deposits at nearly $550 million, representing about 3 percent of the market share.

So far, Santander said, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley is receiving $15,000, while the following organizations are each getting $10,000: Community Action Development Corp., Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley and Valley Youth House.

Alan Jennings, CACLV executive director, said his agency can apply the money toward loans and such programs as small business training and home ownership counseling. That can improve communities as well as clients, he said.

“The things that make people bankable,” Jennings said, “that kind of activity is a high priority to [Santander] because that is what leads them to make loans and investments.”

The $11 billion will include $9 billion in lending to underserved communities, Santander said. It also has pledged nearly $2 billion in “community development investments” and $55 million in charitable contributions.

Jennings, whose agency ensures that low-income families and neighborhoods have access to banks and credit under the federal reinvestment law also known as CRA, doubted Santander would open a new branch in the Valley. Santander has at least one office each in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.

“Their penetration in the Lehigh Valley cities to what they are in the suburbs is not too bad,” he said.

Santander Bank, one of the U.S. subsidiaries of Spanish financial giant Banco Santander, has had a tough run in recent years, following acquisitions that included the 2009 purchase of Berks County-based Sovereign Bank. For example, a series of three settlements to resolve accusations by regulators of illegal credit practices culminated in a “needs to improve” rating for its CRA compliance earlier this year,

Robinson said the bank began discussing the program with about 100 community-based organizations before regulators cited the bank for its practices.

John Taylor, president of the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington, D.C., applauded Inclusive Communities. “We are very pleased that this commitment, and especially the 10 new bank branches, will help individuals build wealth and neighborhoods build their economies,” he said in Santander’s release.

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