An emergency relief fund which launched in March in response to COVID-19 has so far dispersed 78 loans to small businesses in the Asheville Area.
The One Buncombe fund was set up by the Buncombe County Service Foundation to provide bridge funding to business owners in the form of low interest loans. In a press release this week, the county touted that a majority of loans went to "woman and minority-owned businesses." A closer look at the numbers shows white women received the most funding.
Mountain Biz Works, the nonprofit that’s responsible for dispersing the loans, won’t disclose the names of the business that received the emergency funding. Executive Director Matt Raker says that information is kept confidential, even in pre-Covid lending situations.
“It’s been a real mix of businesses, and a lot of new people that we’ve not known before,” Raker said.
Mountain Biz Works does, however, provide a demographic breakdown of the business owners who received loans. Raker says of the 78 businesses, more than half are owned by women and minorities. He says 11 of the business owners had previously lent from Mountain Bizworks, before the pandemic.
“I think that does demonstrate there’s been pretty good outreach around that front, and when you compare that to the prevailing demographics, only 10 percent of small businesses in Buncombe County are minority-owned and 47 percent are women owned,” Raker said.
But a closer look at the category “women and minorities” shows that 70 percent of those loans went to white women. One loan went to a Latino male business owner. Six went to African American business owners, one of them a woman. But zero Latina women business owners have so far received funding. The demographic data provided by Mountain Biz Works cab be found at the bottom of this story.
Raker says it comes down to who’s applying. Of the 190 business loan applications One Buncombe received, Raker says no Latina women applied. Only four applications came from black female-owned businesses.
“If you use a frame of women and minorities, the vast majority of the women are going to be white women,” Dr. Lisa Bowleg, professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the George Washington University in DC, said. Bowleg has published articles on how categorizing women and minorities together fails to address the legacy of racism and inequity experienced by communities of color.
“We can talk about women compared with men as historically having less status, but as a group, white women are structured to be far more privileged than black women,” Bowleg said.
Bowleg says it comes down to access -- like social networks and prior relationships with banks and lending agencies.
She says public assistance, particularly in times of crises, should be dispersed with a consideration of historical context. For instance, Asheville’s history of redlining and denying African Americans loans -- which might deter someone from applying for lending in 2020.
Bowleg’s recommendation is to listen deeply to the people who are most vulnerable and marginalized, not the ones with the most access to resources.
There is no need to develop a policy for the business owner who has the bank president on speed dial. They’re going to be fine. But try to center and understand from different groups because that gets you asking a lot of different questions.
The Buncombe County Service Foundation serves as the fiduciary -- essentially the banker -- for the One Buncombe fund. The nine-member board has one person of color who was just appointed last month. Guadalupe Chavarria is a beauty salon owner and member of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. He also used to be neighbors with the board’s chair, Kit Kramer.
The board has so far raised nearly $1.3 million in contributions. Mountain Biz Works data says the impact of the loans so far have helped retain about 500 jobs.
“The numbers are pretty darn good, given the situation,” Kramer said.
When asked about the small number of minority business owners reflected in the data, Kramer insists the numbers are good considering the demographics of the county, which is nearly 90-percent white.
“At least it being over representative of the number of women who are in business roles, and over the percentage of people of color, I think that’s good work,” Kramer said. “Does it meet the need in a pandemic? I’m sure it does not fully meet the need, but it was a really good effort. “
Those who work in racial equity say since this is emergency relief funding, those who are in more dire straits should be prioritized. Local consultant Ashley Cooper says since the One Buncombe loan program was announced, she’s fielded calls from people of color wondering how decisions about who gets a loan are being made. Cooper says based on the data, she doesn’t think the business loans are going where they’re needed most.
“Across our county, people in different socioeconomic positions are having a different impact by this crisis,” Local consultant Ashley Cooper said. “Folks who are living closer to the poverty line, their need for emergency funds are going to be much higher than folks who still have an income or have made enough money that they have substantial savings.”
Another consideration is business owners who don’t have US citizenship.
Board chair Kit Kramer says the fund is for “every resident in Buncombe County,” regardless of immigration status.
But Cooper says since the One Buncombe application process involves agencies, like Buncombe County Social Services, that may have deterred people who are undocumented from applying.
Cooper says in addition to reevaluating the barriers to applying, looking at racial demographic and poverty data would serve as a better compass for determining and prioritizing who gets a loan.
“There’s been repetitive harm historically. Part of equity is we need to address the past harm, not just the current situation,” Cooper said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story featured a data visual that incorrectly stated the number of One Buncombe loan applicationts and recipients. This story has been updated to accurate reflect the data, provided by Mountain Biz Works.
Mountain Biz Works is a business sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.