As WWII vet is evicted, growing consensus that M&T Bank has been socially destructive

Johnnie H. Hodges, Sr., age 90, is a WWII veteran. He has lived in his Humbolt Parkway home for more than half a century, but was forcibly evicted this morning, after M&T Bank foreclosed on his home. The situation has sparked broad based outrage against the controversial banking institution and its longtime Chief Executive Officer, Robert Willmers.

Willmers, who has long been criticized for his influence over the region’s politicians, has been scruitnized in recent months for longstanding banking practices that have financed the region’s sprawl, profiting wildly by burdening taxpayers with unsustainable infrastructure costs.

Many attribute the region’s socio-spatial segregation patterns to practices of redlining, which pre-dated and continued under Willmers’ tenure; and for racially incongruent lending practices that have resulted in Buffalo being listed among the most segregated regions in the nation.

M&T Bank has taken a racially biased approach to the Buffalo market.

The company refuses to open bank branches in underserved communities and almost entirely lacks a presence on the city’s East Side. The bank’s loan portfolio has profited enormously by offering mostly white families mortgages for suburban dwellings, while maintaining “excruciatingly conservative” lending standards for mortgages in minority neighborhoods.

Moreover, activists have criticized the firm’s lackluster efforts to recruit minorities for management positions at the bank, which suffers from a stark lack of diversity at the executive level. Racially biased hiring practices are to blame, say activists. M&T Bank has not released employment data that refutes the criticism.

Members of the African American community are particularly enraged, because WIllmers has been a major proponent of the “Education Reform Agenda,” which is seen — rightly or wrongly — as an effort to privatize the public education system. The reform agenda is necessary to attract young families to the city, Willmers has argued, like Carl Paladino, the developer turned school board member.

Prominent activists and education leaders in the African American community suspect that both men are plotting a “mass gentrification effort” in which they will profit wildly: Willmers on the new urban mortgage market; and Paladino on residential real estate development.

However, the two men are not close and have engaged in high profile public disputes, mainly related to Willmers’ willingness to hire African American superintendents — like Drs. Harris, Williams, and Pamela Brown — which Paladino has taken issue with on a number of occasions.

Will Willmers provide the civic leadership that history demands of him? 

For those who don’t know, Willmers runs Buffalo. He holds all the clout and has all the leverage in any political circumstance that he engages. It is yet to be seen if he will provide the caliber and combination of civic leadership and business acumen to bring the region forward from the proverbial stone age.

If he wanted to, Willmers could — single handedly — integrate the suburbs of Buffalo, and could do so nearly overnight. There is, indeed, money to be made in that effort. If he is courageous enough to do so, Willmers would be celebrated in the history books as a champion of diversity: as the guy who finally turned the page by integrating the suburbs and ushering in an era of urban reinvestment.

First he would need to reach out to the African American community — which has been treated very badly for generations — and to do so with more than just a multicultural marketing effort. With the liberal monetary policies of the day, M&T can afford to loosen its lending standards to promote homeownership — not only in the suburbs, but in the inner city neighborhoods whose property values are expected to grow wildly in future years.

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