Gale Cincotta’s street-smart protest tactics were legendary among Chicago housing activists. In her quest to gain equal access to mortgage loans for residents of low-income and minority communities, she used armies of protesters to force meetings with top federal government officials, from the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank to the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The woman known as the “mother of the Community Reinvestment Act” didn’t back down from confrontation.

“They say we are not nice when we protest and demonstrate at people’s homes and offices,” said Cincotta in 1982 during a series of actions organized by the National Peoples’ Action (NPA) organization of community groups that she co-founded. “But bad housing isn’t nice, redlining isn’t nice, high oil prices aren’t nice, crime on our streets isn’t nice.”

Former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp once called her during a Washington, D.C., activists’ meeting with a personal request, recounted Shel Trapp, who co-founded NPA with Cincotta. Kemp had heard about Cincotta’s strategy of bringing hundreds of activists to camp out in front of officials’ homes until they agreed to a meeting, said Trapp.

Kemp asked Cincotta to stay away from his house the following day because he would be hosting a reception for his two soon-to-be-married daughters. But Cincotta didn’t back off, according to Trapp. “She said, ‘Maybe you should set out 1,000 more plates,’” he recalled. That was enough. Kemp agreed to meet with Cincotta and 20 of the group’s other leaders two days later, Trapp said. “After that, he really got some good reforms through,” said Trapp.

Taking the fight to Washington

Trapp and Cincotta founded NPA and its sister organization, the National Training and Information Center (NTIC), in 1972 after a Midwest regional HUD director told them their demands were beyond his power to grant. That meant they had to take their fight for fair lending to Washington. Cincotta later served as executive director of NTIC and chairwoman of the NPA.

The grassroots groups that made up NPA’s coalition said in their first conference that one of the key things they wanted was for banks to disclose where they were making their mortgage loans. So Cincotta went on the offensive, testifying numerous times before then-Sen. William Proxmire (DWis.) in support of legislation that became known as the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), passed in 1975.

Then, armed with HMDA data showing banks’ failures to lend in their local communities, Cincotta and her allies pushed for the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to serve the credit needs of all the communities where they are located. It passed in 1977. Cincotta’s leadership in both fights earned her the “mother of CRA” designation from other neighborhood activists.

The daughter of Greek restaurant owners, wife of a gas station attendant, and mother of six sons began her career as a political activist out of a sense of outrage. First, she began agitating for her sons’ schools to get their share of city money. Then she noticed her neighborhood deteriorating as banks refused to make loans there. “We had no choice but to come together, organize, protest, and fight with the banks until they made loans in our neighborhood,” she told a conference of European bankers in 1996. “The banks thought we were their enemy and that we wanted them to make bad loans. We set out to teach them that there were solid loans to be made in our neighborhoods.”

Cincotta’s in-yourface approach served her well a few years after the CRA’s passage when she stationed a group of protesters right in front of the Federal Reserve Building and refused to budge until then-Chairman Paul Volcker met with her and 15 other leaders. The activists wanted Volcker’s support in their push to put some teeth into CRA enforcement.

“Gale just talked to him like he was not important at all,” said Brenda LeBlanc, an Iowa activist who was present at the meeting. “She just told him what the problem was and asked him what he was going to do about it.” Volcker agreed that regulatory agencies had some responsibility to enforce the law, and he looked into the issue and followed through, LeBlanc added.

Keeping the pressure on

Once CRA was passed, activists like Cincotta figured out that one way they could ensure banks complied with the law was to lodge protests against bank mergers until the financial institutions involved committed to making millions—even billions— of dollars in neighborhood investments. Since the law’s enactment, banks have made more than $4 trillion in CRA commitments, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

For a housewife whose entry into activism came via the local parent-teacher association, Cincotta showed extraordinary business sense. Although many saw her as radical, her approach to achieving her goals was remarkably pragmatic. She emphasized to banks that she wanted them to make a profit, and she worked continually to figure out how to overcome obstacles that prevented them from doing that in lower-income communities.

For instance, in 1992 Cincotta helped Chicago bankers find a solution to a problem in financing multifamily buildings of two to four units, which make up 38 percent of all residential units in the city, according to Tom Fitzgibbons, executive vice president of Chicago-based MB Financial Bank. “The problem was that you could get a 97 percent loan-to-value loan on a one-unit building, but on a two-unit you could only get an 80 percent loan, and on a three-unit you could only get a 70 percent loan,” he said.

So Cincotta put together a plan for a group of Chicago bankers to run a trial that would allow them to make loans to two- to four-unit buildings using the same conditions they would have applied to loans for single-unit buildings, Fitzgibbons said. The bankers took the plan to Freddie Mac, which made a $25 million commitment to the trial. “When we got through with it, [the loans] all performed,” said Fitzgibbons. “What it did was it changed that underwriting for the entire country.”

Developing consensus

Cincotta’s skill at developing consensus was one of the keys to making that plan work, he said. “It was really an amazing unusual partnership that was all about driving good capital into markets that had been disinvested,” added Fitzgibbons, who from 2001 to 2004 served on a consumer advisory council to the Fed’s Board of Governors. “She had a tremendous impact on helping people like myself who wanted to do the right thing.”

In the decade before her death, Cincotta worked with HUD on the development of two programs aimed at protecting borrowers and keeping the pressure on banks to make sound loans in low-income neighborhoods.

The Credit Watch program gives HUD the power to deny participation in the agency’s mortgage insurance programs to lenders with excessive foreclosure rates. Meanwhile, the Homebuyers Protection Plan requires appraisers to give lenders a detailed list of each property’s defects, which lenders must then turn over to borrowers.

When she died in 2001 at the age of 72, Cincotta was eulogized and praised by former partners and adversaries alike. “It is clear that no one in our time did more than Gale to raise our collective consciousness about the corrosive effects of redlining—a practice she viewed as her call to action,” said John D. Hawke Jr., then-comptroller of the Currency. “With Gale Cincotta’s passing, we have lost a true national treasure.”

Without Cincotta, American cities would have less decent affordable housing, fewer jobs, and less responsible government, said Fitzgibbons. “Urban America would be a different landscape today.”