Nestled in a taupe stucco shopping plaza in East Oakland, Community Check Cashing’s unassuming storefront blends in between the beauty salon and the immigration-law office.
A neon sign blinks in the front window as customers stream in and out, the door chiming for each arrival: a middle-aged landscaper eager to cash a check before heading back to work; an elderly woman joking with the teller as she preps a wire transfer to a friend; a young father and son in matching Raiders gear getting a money order.
Three other check-cashing and payday lending shops in the neighborhood boast larger stores, bigger crowds, higher fees, and more impressive neon. But unlike its neighbors, the tiny, quiet CCC, which is now entering its 10th year of operations, is designed to run without turning a profit.
“We face both being ignored and the occasional hostility,” said Community Check Cashing’s founder and executive director, Daniel Leibsohn.
With only 1,300 square feet and a $230,000 annual budget, CCC serves the same customer base as its for-profit counterparts, but to no great reward, with fees and interest rates adding up to less than half those of the competition. The organization has had, in Leibsohn’s words, “four near-death experiences” since its opening in May 2009. In the nearly nine years of operation since, there’s only been enough revenue to pay his salary—$60,000 a year, no benefits—less than half the time.
Nor has CCC’s charitable tax status allowed it to shake off its associations to the larger, and often disreputable, storefront-financial-services sector. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau began investigating the payday-lending industry in 2012, promising close oversight and enforcement. “We recognize the need for emergency credit. At the same time, it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them,” then-CFPB Director Richard Cordray said at the time. Later that year, then again in 2015, Community Check Cashing’s bank closed the organization’s business accounts to avoid being associated with such a notorious industry, according to Leibsohn.
Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, an institution aiming to help the underbanked has itself suffered from being underbanked.
Tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, without bank accounts; an account may appear to be the more fiscally responsible choice, but can rack up costly fees. Roughly 30 million of the banked and unbanked alike rely on check cashers and payday lenders for convenient, quick cash, despite the stigma and extra expense.