WASHINGTON - The District of Columbia, like the states, has the power to charter its own banks. But when S. Kathryn Allen was appointed commissioner of its Office of Banking and Financial Institutions last August, she had just one bank to regulate. It looks like she will soon have more.
Ms. Allen took over a moribund agency with a staff of five and a budget of $750,000. But in 10 months on the job she has more than doubled the staff and budget of the 14-year-old agency and is putting those resources to work on daunting task: a top-to-bottom overhaul of the city's banking code that could take more than a year.
A special focus will be making Washington's charter attractive for new international banks. And just talk of that goal has prompted five groups to inquire about starting international banks here, Ms. Allen said.
Four other groups have also inquired, for a total of nine - more than at any other time in at least 30 years.
That is a big change. In the last two years 12 new banks have set up shop in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs, but only one in the nation's capital - and that one has a federal charter.
"A lot of bankers told us no one had ever invited them to come into the city," Ms. Allen said. "Well, we are contacting them now to let them know we are open for business."
Some of the projects are only in the speculative stages, but a handful of groups "have already asked where they can send the check" for their charter applications," Ms. Allen added.
A wave of new locally chartered banks would go a long way toward improving the banking services for city residents, she said. Only one of the 23 banks that operate branches in Washington - $94 million-asset Treasury Bank - is chartered by the city. That has "left a large population without access to banking services," Ms. Allen said. "We have several wards that are underserved."
The 45-year-old attorney worked for Federal Home Mortgage Corp., the Environmental Protection Agency, and Chevy Chase Bank before coming to the Office of Banking and Financial Institutions.
She has taken steps to improve the lending climate for the city's poor. Her office has drafted a bill, to be considered by the City Council this week, that seeks to define predatory lending and make it harder for such lenders to foreclose on Washington homes.
Ms. Allen is also playing a leading role in plans to create Washington's first small-business investment corporation.
Those efforts have caught the attention of one group that is considering opening a bank to serve residents in Washington's inner city. Though it has yet to file an application, Legacy Banc would focus on making small-business and mortgage loans, according to one of its organizers.
Ms. Allen said she intends to submit legislation in July that would, among other things, rewrite Washington's 98-year-old Trust Act, restore the city's authority to charter credit unions, and facilitate international banking.
Teeming with embassies and foreign-born residents, "Washington should be an international banking center," said Babak A. Pooya, deputy general counsel at the Office of Banking and Financial Institutions. But only one bank with a big commercial presence in the city - Riggs Bank - has a significant international banking business. And Riggs has a Virginia charter.
Tarek Hmaidan, 33, a Lebanese-born businessman, heads one of the groups interested in starting a bank here with an international flavor. His Darahem.com - "Darahem" is Arabic for "money" - would initially look to young Washington-area Middle Easterners for most of its business
The concept also includes unique cybercafe-style branches, the first slated to open this year in Georgetown, "where people can enjoy a very good cup of coffee while they bank," Mr. Hmaidan said.
Darahem.com plans to help entrepreneurs from 15 to 40 years old with high-tech start-ups. It would let them use its infrastructure of routers, T1 lines, and other Internet equipment to conduct business.
"It costs a lot to build the infrastructure to do business online," Mr. Hmaidan said. "Instead of each business coming and building an online site, we want them to use our infrastructure and affiliate - or even cobrand - with us."