In Philly’s AAPI communities, the path to PPP lending depended on community support

Seven years ago, Justin Lee, a Korean immigrant, took over Fern Rock Hardware, an old-school Olney shop run by a Jewish family for 86 years.

He says it’s the kind of place where Lowe’s and Home Depot employees tell owners of older homes in the neighborhood to buy replacement parts that are long out of production. Lee and his wife are the only employees.

When the federal government launched the Paycheck Protection Program, the massive effort to support businesses at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Lee heard from people who received financial assistance.

Lee said he learned about PPP from friends in the neighborhood, from KakaoTalk — a popular Korean chat app — and from community groups. He successfully applied with the help of a local business organization and a Korean bank in Elkins Park.

» READ MORE: How PPP Loans Missed the Target for Philadelphia’s Southeast Asian Business Owners

Metro and The Inquirer have been speaking to Asian American small business owners, community leaders, corridor managers and others across Philadelphia for more than a year. They said language and technology barriers made it difficult to access PPP loans.

However, Lee’s experience underscores the resilience of the city’s AAPI business communities despite these obstacles and suggests where more resources could be deployed to ensure others are not left behind.

Fern Rock Hardware was far from the only AAPI-owned company able to obtain federal dollars through a sometimes informal network of community organizations, friends, accountants, younger relatives, and financial institutions.

In most cases, the path to a PPP loan, especially for business owners with limited English skills, involved significant help from multiple quarters.

Their stories show the importance of community and neighborhood groups, many of which are struggling with funding and human resources, and the need for increased outreach by government at all levels.

The North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, the same Olney group that supported Lee, also helped T-House Inc., a nearby screen printing company.

“They really held our hands and sent any information that might be relevant to all these small business owners in the corridor,” said Elisa Kim, manager of T-House.

She said the $65,000 the company received in the two PPP rounds “really made a difference whether we left the lights on or not.”

“It was so difficult. I’ve never filled out so many forms in my life.”

Elisa Kim

Kim grew up playing on the porch of the T-House building on Fifth Street off Ashdale Street. Her parents founded the company 35 years ago, making custom shirts and other items for schools, churches and other institutions.

Though her parents still own the company, Kim took the lead through the PPP process.

“It was so hard,” she said. “I’ve never filled out so many forms in my life.”

The North Fifth Street Revitalization Project sent targeted emails and text messages to T-House through PPP and other forms of financial assistance, Kim said.

Lee said through a Korean interpreter that the organization constantly provided emails, text messages, and face-to-face support to help Fern Rock Hardware secure its $5,000 loan.

The organization, like most commercial corridor groups in Philadelphia, has limited resources — its team of four serves the route’s 300+ businesses.

“We have a fairly diverse team that has allowed us to translate for most of our businesses, but we don’t have all of the language needs in Olney on our team,” said Stephanie Michel, the organization’s chief executive.

Dan Tang, who runs a pharmacy down the corridor, occasionally volunteers his time translating into Korean or helping his neighbors with paperwork.

City officials rely heavily on corridor groups like the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project when trying to get information to small businesses.

“For a large, corporate city, we’re fairly understaffed, so we rely heavily on our partnerships,” said James Onofrio, program manager at the Philadelphia Department of Commerce.

Through a local grants program called Restore and Reopen — which provided nearly $1.6 million to 186 businesses damaged by the riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd — the city paid for community organizations that offered translation help to small businesses.

“I think that was by far our most diverse response in terms of ethnicity and immigrant background for our grants,” Onofrio added.

Metro, The Inquirer and Resolve Philly collaborated on data analysis examining which banks lend to businesses in communities with high AAPI populations.

In Chinatown, Asian Bank processed and distributed more than $2.4 million in loans to 68 companies, accounting for about 18% of all loans in the neighborhood and most lenders.

Only four major banks were among the top 10 PPP lenders in Chinatown. In South Philadelphia, where there is a concentration of Cambodian, Vietnamese and other AAPI-owned companies, three of the top 10 were large financial institutions. Olney’s top lenders included only two national banks.

National banks did not provide the largest number of loans or the largest median loan in any of the three districts that were the focus of the analysis.

Fintech companies like Paypal and Kabbage seem to have played a big role in raising funds for minorities.

A report analyzing a nationwide sample of restaurants found that Asian-American owned establishments are about 8.5% more likely to use fintech for PPP than white companies.

“Fintech has been really important for distributing these funds to minority communities,” said Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied PPP. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Kim thought her PPP application hit a wall when she felt ignored by a national bank that T-House has worked with for decades. She eventually turned to PayPal to handle the company’s loans.

Asian Bank, which is based in Chinatown and has a branch in Oxford Circle, found new customers struggling with the online portals set up by larger financial institutions, said James Wang, the bank’s president and CEO.

Others, he added, are having trouble getting responses to their applications.

The PPP forms were not originally available in Simplified Chinese, so Asian Bank prepared a Chinese-language summary of the program and developed a spreadsheet guide that business owners could use to get an estimated loan amount.

Wang even held a seminar on WeChat, a popular app in the Chinese community, to explain the benefits of PPP.

“It was a lot more of a hand-holding experience than I think some of the other places were able and willing to offer,” he said.

For future business assistance programs, it would be better to have paperwork in Simplified Chinese right at the start “so we don’t have to be translators,” Wang added.

Hor Chou, who owns fast food restaurant New Happy Garden and heads Philadelphia’s Cambodian business community, said aid programs should have a Khmer-language website for Cambodian business owners.

“What would really help would be timely dissemination of information,” he said through an interpreter.

In March, the city’s Department of Commerce hired Jennie Nam, who has spearheaded efforts to get city support for the Southeast Asian market at FDR Park, as its first Khmer-speaking business service manager.

“What would really help would be timely dissemination of information.”

Hor Chou

Other employees speak Spanish, French and Vietnamese, department officials said. Nam, whose family has been involved in several businesses, believes using Khmer puts shopkeepers at ease.

“My parents, the first line when someone comes in and asks — they’re from the city of Philadelphia — if they can talk to the owner, their first response is ‘no English,’ or ‘no owner,'” Nam said. “I’m able to break through that barrier instantly just by walking in with a smile.”

Noting the support system he and many other AAPI business owners rely on, Lee said additional funds should go towards strengthening this network of organizations, a group he says has helped him financially and mentally .

“Knowing that I could go to these local organizations and get help that way kind of relieved me a lot and eased the burden of going through these processes on my own,” Lee said.

Julie Christie and Diana Lu contributed to this report.

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This story was a collaboration between The Inquirer, Metro Philadelphia and Resolve Philly and was made possible through the Future of Work program. The story was created through the work of Resolve Philly’s Community Engagement Team.

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