Congressmen to hold hearing in Atlanta on banking, real estate

Members of Congress are coming to Atlanta to see and hear first hand just how bad the state's banking and real estate industries are these days.

U.S. Reps. Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat from Ohio, and Lynn Westmoreland, a conservative Republican from Coweta County, plan to hold a public hearing at the Georgia State Capitol Monday about how the high rate of bank failures in Georgia is affecting commercial and residential real estate markets.

Georgia has had more bank failures than any other state in the country. Most have been small community banks, a major source of real estate loans in many towns .

While federal grants through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) helped prop up some of the nation's biggest banks and financial institutions, "the little banks are getting the shaft," Westmoreland said in an interview.

"That's causing a snowball effect," he said. "You can imagine what it does to the rest of the economy."

When community banks can't make real estate loans, it filters down through builders, developers, contractors and home improvement stores, Westmoreland said.

"I know of a builder who has two presale homes and approved buyers who have their mortgage money approved and ready to go," said Westmoreland, a former builder. "But he can't get any construction loans to start construction" on the houses.

The hearing comes as some in Congress are considering injecting federal money into small community banks like those in Georgia. Earlier this month, several top banking regulators told a Senate banking subcommittee that federal help for small banks could be key to keeping the real estate industry on the road to recovery.

"Community banks are still in there trying to make loans, but I think some additional capital support would be really helpful," Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., told a Senate banking subcommittee.

Westmoreland would like to see some of the remaining or returned TARP money used to help support community banks -- even though he and other Republicans initially voted against the TARP program.

"I wish we hadn't had any of the TARP," he said. "But this TARP money is out there."

Scheduled to testify at the congressional field hearing are state and federal banking regulators and top officials from banks and construction companies. U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, also is expected to take part in the 11:30 a.m. Monday meeting.

Kucinich, who is chairman of a House oversight and government reform subcommittee, agreed to hold the hearing in Atlanta at Westmoreland's request.

The subcommittee which has focused on foreclosures and other economic issues, has held public hearings in other hard-hit parts of the country as well, said Kucinich spokesman Nathan White.