For the first time in 23 years, the number of credit union start-ups is on the rise. During the first six months of 1993, 13 credit unions opened their doors, compared with two in 1992, and seven in 1991.

The figures are based on a running tally of operating credit unions kept by the Credit Union National Associations. This is the largest increase in start-ups since 1969, when 515 credit unions opened their doors, said the Madison, Wis.-based trade group.

"Now the thinking is that it's O.K. to start a credit union," said William Hampel, senior vice president of research and development for CUNA. The group's numbers do not include credit unions that failed before 1980.

Political support for community-based lending to fight poverty is one reason for the upsurge, industry experts said.

The number of start-ups won't add up t a net increase of credit unions. Attrition through liquidation or merger claimed 293 credit unions through May 1993, continuing a longtime decline in the total number of institutions even as membership increased.

The yearend total for 1992 was 13,379 institutions, and Mr. Hampel predicted that number will drop to between 10,000 to 12,000 by the end of the decade.

Mr. Hampel said as many as 30 to 50 credit unions will start up each year over the next three or four years NCUA officials said that number is optimistic, but added there will be an appreciable increase.

Low-income credit unions are driving this surge. Seven of the new starts this year are geared toward people with low incomes, ad the National Credit Union Administration expects to charter 10 such institutions a year over the next three or four years.

A credit union is considered in the low-income group if the majority of member earn wages below 80 percent of the national average. These institutions, usually community chartered, are allowed to accept nonmember deposits. At yearend 1992, NCUA recognized 139 such credit unions, down from 331 in 1987.

Why the second chance for low-income credit unions?

Under Mr. Swan's prodding, the NCUA began administering the Community Development Revolving Loan Program for Credit Unions in 1989, which offers loans and technical assistance. But the real watershed was the Los Angeles riots.

"What happened in L.A. was a wake-up call to politicians and financial institutions that a new social policy was needed in inner cities and poor communities," said Clifford Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Credit Unions.

In July 1992 the NCUA announced a pilot program that would look into ways it could better serve low-income credit unions. and some of the low-income credit unions that started this year received their charters in late 1992.

Since then, the election of President Clinton has been a "positive reinforcement," said Christopher Kerecman, executive Assistant to NCUA board member Robert Swan.

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