© Greg Nash
The groups are partnering with Wells Fargo and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). Wells Fargo has pledged $1.6 billion in lending and philanthropic programs for Washington neighborhoods, primarily in the city’s economically distressed Wards 7 and 8.
NCRC president and founder John Taylor said the program, called Where We Live, is a "seminal moment for D.C." He noted that people growing up in public housing and blighted neighborhoods are often shut out from the formal economy.
Taylor spoke alongside other community leaders and bank executives at a breakfast roundtable Tuesday, convened by The Hill and sponsored by Wells Fargo, about how to best use the investments to address major issues facing underserved communities.
Emily Price, chief program officer of So Others Might Eat, a non-profit that provides food, clothing and healthcare to the homeless, acknowledged the makeup of the groups represented at the roundtable Tuesday.
"Rarely do we see folks like this around a table –– conversations like this need to happen more often," she said.
The group included religious leaders and various organizations dedicated to providing food, clothing and transportation services to those in need as well as organizations focused on small business development and financial inclusion.
Harold Pettigrew, executive director of the Washington Area Community Investment Fund, a non-profit fund for underserved communities, underscored the importance of philanthropic and private-sector institutions coming together to work on community development.
"Access to capital is where the private sector can take the lead, rather than looking to the city to provide leadership," said Pettigrew.
John Allen, regional bank president of the Washington metro region for Wells Fargo, pointed to homelessness as an example of an area where groups should focus on deeper issues.
"We can’t just look at homelessness itself, this ignores the cycle — we must tackle the root causes and help people access the tools to provide for themselves and their families," he said.
In a city with soaring rental and homeownership costs, low wages are often the biggest obstacle for people to achieve financial independence.
While homeownership is generally perceived as the most common way for American families to build wealth, attendees on Tuesday agreed that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
"Housing creates stabilization but not wealth … housing alone does not create the middle class that we are looking for," said Allen, adding, "$15 an hour is not enough to make it in D.C."
Many residents live month-to-month and are one emergency expenditure away from financial crisis, attendees noted.
Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz, associate director of Capital Area Asset Builders, said 47 percent of families in Washington, or about 100,000 families, fall into the category of being financially unstable.
"We are one tree branch falling on someone’s car from a family falling under financially –– if you can’t get to work, issues compound and your life can be turned upside-down," he said.
Attendees pointed to practical solutions that could alleviate poverty risks for some families.
Leitmann-Santa Cruz argued that for Washington’s undocumented residents, who account for 5 percent of the population, the ability to open bank accounts with a Taxpayer Identification Number rather than a Social Security Number — which is legal — can make all the difference.
And local small businesses can leverage a sense of community to provide better jobs, said Raj Aggarwal, board chair of Think Local First DC, an organization that supports local businesses.
"Businesses are more than just transactional – they can foster a sense of community — small businesses are about much more than just getting rich," he said.
Still, Washington’s economic disparities are so large they require investments like the one provided by Where We Live, said the attendees.
Gustavo Velasquez, director of the Washington-Area Research Initiative at the Urban Institute, said the average net worth of a white family in 2014 in Washington was $285,000, while the average net worth of a black family was $3,000.