Bruce Mitchell

Senior Research Analyst, National Community Reinvestment Coalition

Photo of Bruce Mitchell

Education: B.A. in Philosophy and Religion (Eckerd College), Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Science and Policy (University of South Florida)

Describe your job/position and some of the primary tasks and duties for which you’re responsible.
We’re a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit organization engaged in advocacy, research, and policy analysis centered on the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. NCRC looks at investment activity within US cities, particularly mortgage and small business lending, and access to financial services. We’re very interested in the issue of equity and wealth building for low and moderate income Americans, so we focus on evaluating how banks are providing financial access for individuals in cities and rural areas. Our work is not enforcement, but we point-out where banks can do better in their performance and make recommendations to improve policy decisions and regulation.

Where do you draw your data from, and how do you use the data in your work?
We primarily use publically available datasets. For instance, to look at mortgage activity, we use data gathered as part of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA). Additionally, under the Community Reinvestment Act, banks are obligated to report data regarding their small business lending, so we use both of these datasets to study lending activity. Data on bank branch locations and deposits are available from the FDIC. We also use U.S. Census data quite a bit to define low to moderate income areas and determine where minority communities are located and what sort of financial access and access to capital these groups have. We’ve also done some interesting studies using historic sources, like the HOLC residential security maps, commonly referred to as “redlining maps” which identified lending risk by neighborhood using theories from Homer Hoyt and the Chicago School of urban geography. We looked at the HOLC classifications of neighborhoods done in the 1930’s to compare the demographics and economic status of the neighborhoods today. It is startling how little demographic and economic change there has been in these neighborhoods. Eighty years later and they are still mostly minority and low income. Also, we are releasing a report on gentrification and displacement and their impact on capital flow and neighborhood change.

How do you perceive the value and importance of geographic knowledge to perform the work that you just described?
A geographer brings a distinct perspective to this work. Our work at NCRC engages with the problems of urban geography, looking at neighborhood change, and how this corresponds with the spatial flow of capital within cities. We also examine capital access at different scales, from census tracts up to metro areas and states. A multi-scalar understanding of geography is critical to what we do. We use spatial statistics and spatial analysis to examine bank branch access and proximity to various communities. An economist might approach these issues in a non-spatial way and fail to see the relationship of neighborhood demographics on issues like proximity and financial access for communities. Much of our work involves mapping. Maps provides an immediate spatial awareness to people, helping them understand how lending and investment patterns differ between communities. When you combine maps with visualizations of statistical and other quantitative analysis, it is a very powerful way of providing information to advocates and policymakers.

Can you reflect and maybe give an example or two of some impacts that this work has had in the community?
What we’re engaged in is very close to critical cartography. We’re looking at inequitable access to capital, and using maps and data to encourage banks to meet their obligation to do a better job in underserved communities. This results in what are called “community benefit agreements”, involving community groups, banks, and federal agencies. The Community Reinvestment Act impacts banks when they are trying to achieve a merger and there’s a problem with their performance in low to moderate income and underserved communities. Often we are able to look at their performance and encourage increased commitments to lending and community development efforts. Some of these community benefit agreements amount to billions of dollars in commitments by banks. We’ve had a number of community benefit agreements in the past two years which have substantially increased the amount of investment in underserved communities by banks.

We also work on grants. For instance, working with the U.S. Dept. of the Treasury to assess the impact of their Bank Enterprise Award (BEA) program. Under a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, we’re currently looking at discrimination in small business lending. This involves rigorous testing of banks using prospective customers of different race and gender profiles to assess how customer service interactions take place. It’s a very innovative area of market research with civil rights implications. Our goal in all of these activities is to increase equity in financial access for all Americans.

How does your work connect to your aspirations, both as a private citizen and as a professional in your field? 
I enjoy both the quantitative work and the mapping work that we do. Additionally, seeing how issues in geography, that might seem theoretical, profoundly impact our communities. Redlining and the HOLC maps which arose partly out of early theories of urban geography like filtering and invasion/succession for instance. Today it is interesting to see how urban planning theories, like Richard Florida’s “creative class” are playing out through processes like neighborhood gentrification. It’s very rewarding to engage in policy issues that directly affect economic equity throughout the United States, and to be in a position that in a small way promotes greater equity for all Americans.

Based on your prior educational experiences, when did you discover geography? Can you think of a specific moment that changed your perspective about different issues, civic responsibilities, and the potential of geography to be of value in society?
The initial “hook” into geography for me was cartography. I was interested in the revolution in cartographic science that was taking place with applications like ArcGIS, enabling more people to engage in mapmaking. Beyond that, the theoretical aspects of geography matched well with my previous education in philosophy and the social sciences. Unifying the quantitative aspects of spatial analysis with my social sciences orientation has been rewarding and interesting. Outside of my job, I have done research and publications on environmental justice issues with Jayajit Chakraborty. I’ve looked at areas where there is inequitable exposure to urban heat, which I describe as an issue of thermal inequity within US cities, and also cities around the world, like in India. I use spatial statistics to determine whether there is a relationship between socially vulnerable communities and greater exposure to the urban heat island effect and climate change.