Money man to the poor Profile: Bruce Marks, the man whose war on banks causes mortgage money to be lent to those usually turned down for loans, is bringing his act to Baltimore this month.

May 12, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

On a gray, damp Monday, 2,000 of the faithful jammed a cavernous Northeast Washington church, overflowing into the sanctuary, rocking restless children, fanning themselves in the heat of closely huddled humanity. Some waited four hours.

Finally, a slight, intense man took his place at the pulpit to preach his gospel of homeownership, promising mortgages to all who had answered to the landlord far too long. Three bank executives stood up with Bruce Marks, housing advocate, to say they, too, shared his dream of strong, stable neighborhoods.

"It's tough to save money, isn't it? You can't pay your bills on

time. You don't have perfect credit," Marks shouted into a microphone. "That shouldn't prevent us from being homeowners."

In a revival-like frenzy, many in the crowd rose, swaying with eyes closed, arms outstretched, humming to gospel music.

They clapped and cheered. "Amen, Brother!" "All Right." "Alleluia!"

Bruce Marks relishes such days -- when big banks compete for business from people accustomed to being turned down for loans.

For a decade, this self-proclaimed "urban terrorist" has waged a highly public and controversial war on banks to force them to invest in impoverished neighborhoods and lend to the low income who never owned homes or faced losing them through default.

Now, he's bringing his campaign to Baltimore, where his Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America plans to set up shop this month.

Long one of the Boston area's toughest banking critics, the banker-turned-activist finds himself on the brink of a rapid-fire expansion -- four cities in the past year, with another five in coming months: Baltimore; Charlotte; New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Birmingham, Ala.

With promises of $1 billion in loans from eight banks, Marks expects to make homeowners of at least 10,000 of the dispossessed over the next five years. In the past two years alone, Neighborhood Assistance says, it has made 1,200 loans.

From his new West Baltimore Street office, opening in time for a homebuyer rally May 18 in Harlem Park, he will doubtless go looking for another good fight.

After all, Marks -- with his friend and colleague, the Rev. Graylan Ellis Hagler -- and hordes of followers have protested on bank presidents' front lawns and at corporate headquarters, disrupted annual meetings and flooded executives' homes with barrages of mail.

They have gathered 400 strong, in their "Stop the Loan Sharks" shirts, to testify -- and sing gospel songs -- before Congress. They've branded banking executives as racists and crooks.

"Banks are going to do the right thing only because we're strong enough to force them to do it," he says. "You've got to always have that junkyard dog approach. At some point, and it might take five or seven years, they'll say, 'What do we have to do to get these guys off our back?' "

His tenacity and tactics have attracted a loyal following of supporters -- and a host of harsh critics.

To believers, he has stood up against powerful financial institutions and helped the poor get housing, particularly those in inner cities.

But critics describe Marks as self-absorbed -- an egotist bent on building up his image by tearing down others.

They claim he's abrasive and combative, refuses to compromise, and accepts more than his share of credit.

"His style was confrontational, even with other community groups, a holier-than-thou attitude," said Joseph D. Feaster Jr., former president of an organization of Boston banking and community groups.

"The friction was always Bruce Marks. Who died and left Bruce Marks boss?"

For his part, Marks makes no apologies.

His high profile has gotten the ear of industry heavyweights such as Hugh McColl Jr., chief executive of NationsBank Corp. When Marks showed up at NationsBank's Charlotte, N.C., headquarters last October, McColl agreed not only to see him, but also, after just two months of meetings, to give him what he wanted: a commitment of $500 million in loans his group could distribute in Baltimore and three other cities.

The bank agreed to his terms after looking into his loans with other lenders and determining, "Bruce Marks and NACA delivered on what they promised," said Vickie B. Tassan, senior vice president for Community Investment. "He had been

perfectly successful, with no delinquencies."

Upscale childhood

All his life, Bruce Marks says, he has identified with the disenfranchised and downtrodden, but not because he grew up poor. The son of a toy company salesman and a tennis fashions business owner, he spent his childhood in the ritzy Scarsdale suburb of New York.

Rather, said Marks, 40, his single-minded zeal to help those left out of the good things in life flowed from the gnawing feeling that he never really fit in.

As a child, he knew the pain of being stigmatized and humiliated for something beyond his control -- a speech impediment that brought cruel taunts from classmates.

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