Three nights a week in the spring and fall, the Bedford-Stuyvesant branch of Roosevelt Savings Bank is transformed into a home repair workshop.
The program, sponsored by the bank and the local chapter of Neighborhood Housing Services in this battered area of Brooklyn, gives hands-on instruction in carpentry, tiling, plumbing, and electrical systems.
The goal is to encourage homeowners to improve their neighborhoods, starting with their own property. Anyone - not just customers of the bank - is eligible for the classes. Students pay about $60, which covers materials, use of tools, and dinner.
Not only is Roosevelt Savings helping its neighborhood, but the bank's program is praised by regulators as an innovative way to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act.
In a speech last month, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig said Roosevelt's home maintenance program helped persuade him that such nonlending endeavors should be rewarded under CRA.
"Last year's visit to the Roosevelt Savings Bank training helped shape my thinking and strengthened my resolve that pre-purchase and post-purchase counseling should be given credit under CRA," Mr. Ludwig said.
Walter Mullins, Roosevelt's senior vice president for marketing, started the program in 1993. His teaching partner is Robert Russell, a rehab specialist with Neighborhood Housing.
The classroom for the 10-week sessions is right in the bank - a 2,000- square-foot area complete with a model room that students use to practice their techniques. Classes are held from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
"We've turned the bank into a professional workshop," said Mr. Mullins.
The idea for the home maintenance program came to Mr. Mullins during a bus tour of the neighborhood designed to show bankers the benefits of CRA lending. He met a woman who had bought an old brownstone at auction but couldn't afford to make essential repairs.
Mr. Mullins, who said he's had an interest in tools and fixing things all his life, decided to start teaching people how to improve their own homes.
"My parents used to tease me I was born with a tool box in my hand," Mr. Mullins said.
The bank initially provided $20,000 for the program, said Mr. Mullins, but some of a 1992 grant totaling $100,000 to Neighborhood Housing Services also is going toward the project.
The program does help the $2.5 billion-asset bank's CRA rating, which is currently "satisfactory," Mr. Mullins said.
"When examiners come in, they see we are making a genuine effort," he said.
When asked why, with such an unusual program, the bank did not earn an "outstanding," Roosevelt's compliance officer Ira Kramer said there is a fine line dividing the two ratings.
"So far, (outstanding) has eluded us, but we are not disappointed at all," he said.
To Mr. Mullins, the important thing is teaching people how to make their lives better.
"Most people can do this work if they want to," he said.
Students are about half men and half women, he said, mostly from the Bed-Sty area. Enrollment has grown from 20 in 1992 to 300 this year.
Mr. Mullins said that most of his students come to the classes for one of three reasons: to have the satisfaction of learning a new skill while improving their home, to avoid spending a lot of money on repairs, or to become a more educated consumer. For example, some students just want to understand electrical wiring enough to know if a contractor is cheating them.
Three levels are offered: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. At the end of each course, the bank has a graduation ceremony for the students and gives them a certificate of achievement.
Mr. Mullins tells stories about people who have come in knowing nothing about home maintenance and have left near experts.
For example, one woman showed up at a beginner class with no idea how to fix anything. After finishing all three levels, she recently climbed out on her roof to fix her chimney with copper and tar.
Another student actually was approved for a loan at a different bank, because he produced his graduation certificate from the Roosevelt program, Mr. Mullins said.
The bank had turned the man down for the loan, but after completing the program, he applied again. The bank asked if anything was different about his application, and the man showed the loan officer his certificate. That turned a borderline decision in the borrower's favor, Mr. Mullins said.
"If this man is dedicated to his home, that's contributing to home ownership," he said.