Pols to eliminate bank fees in cases of fire, tragedies


By Ellen Keohane

May Leung’s eyes filled with tears as she explained how she attempted to access her safe deposit box after a seven-alarm fire destroyed her Chinatown apartment building on Grand Street on April 11. According to Leung, the bank told her that she needed to pay a fee of about $150 before she could access her belongings because the keys to the box had been lost in the fire and as a result, the lock would need to be replaced.

“I refused to pay that,” Leung said after speaking at a press conference on Sunday morning on Grand Street. “It’s not fair; I explained to them.”

At the press conference, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Daniel Squadron announced legislation that would prohibit banks from charging victims of tragedies fees for accessing their safe deposit boxes when the keys had been lost.

“A massive fire took the life of one of our neighbors, displaced dozens of others and left a path of destruction and devastation in its wake,” said Silver as he stood next to a fence separating the sidewalk from the empty lot where an apartment building impacted by the fire once stood. On the fence hung a sign stating “Posted No Trespassing. Beware of Dog.” Silver called the bank fees “unreasonable financial burdens” on families who were struggling to “put their lives back


The State Assembly passed the bill on Monday. According to the legislation, no bank shall be able to impose a fee or charge for access to a safe deposit box where “an act of God, common disaster or emergency situation” has occurred. Squadron, who introduced the bill to the Senate, said on Sunday that he hoped the bill could be passed by the end of the year.

Depending on the bank, the safe deposit fee can range from $100 to $200 to open the box and replace the lock when the keys have been lost, Silver said. In addition, other victims of the fire have complained that their banks told them they would be charged smaller fees to obtain copies of old bank statements and other documents, he added. The bill will ensure that similar victims in the future will not endure the same frustration and delays in accessing their belongings, he said.

Leung declined to identify the name of her bank, but described it as a national bank with a branch in Chinatown. She said that she tried to explain her unique circumstances to bank employees, but at first they refused to waive the fee. So she said she contacted Councilmember Margaret Chin’s office to complain. A member of Chin’s staff later provided Leung with a letter from an attorney, which she brought to the bank, she said. “They accepted it,” she said, adding that the bank chose not to charge her any fees after they received the letter.

“We were all shocked; how could this happen?,” Chin said of finding out about the bank fees. “By having this law, we can make them do the right things,” she said at Sunday’s press conference.

Comptroller John Liu, who also attended the press conference, called the bill “common sense” for those who need help. “Let’s hope this bill gets passed as quickly as possible,” he added.

Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality; Virginia Kee, a founder of the Chinese-American Planning Council; and Jack Eng, president of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association also voiced their support of the legislation on Sunday.

Karen He, special assistant on community relations at Silver’s office, said that according to the Red Cross’ most recent update, 206 people (178 adults and 28 children) have registered for assistance as a result of the April fire on Grand Street. Residents at both 283 and 285 Grand Street were impacted by the fire. According to He, about ten former Grand Street residents have complained about fees that their banks tried to charge them. These banks include local branches

of HSBC, East West Bank, Citibank and Chase, she said. After being contacted by local government representatives and/or community leaders, all four banks later agreed to waive their fees, he added.

“When Chinatown Councilmember Margaret Chin called Citibank’s Chinatown branch manager, Ping Dang, that Friday and asked her for help, Ping immediately agreed,” said Natalie Riper, a Citibank spokesperson. “Citibank immediately began waiving fees for statement copies, cancelled checks, bank reference letters and other documentation that customers may have lost in the fire. Within 48 hours, the bank was also waiving fees to replace safe deposit box locks in situations where both keys had been lost in the fire,” she continued. Customers are typically charged $15 for a lost safe deposit key and $70 to replace a safe deposit box locks when both keys are

lost, Riper added.

In April, HSBC had a customer who came into the branch who asked to have her safe deposit box forced open and new keys issued, said Emily Wang, SVP director of marketing for HSBC. The customer initially paid for the service — which cost $136.90 — but she was issued a refund

check on April 22 after the bank verified she was a Grand Street fire victim, Wang said.

Kui of Asian Americans for Equality has been providing former tenants of 283 and 285 Grand Street with letters of residency, said Neil Brazil, vice president public affairs, HSBC North America.

“Once that document is presented at a local HSBC branch, bank charges including but not limited to safe-deposit box key replacement, card reissue, photocopy and statement reprint service fees, will be rebated,” he said.

Chase declined to comment.

Feng Chai Li, who also lost her home in the fire, spoke with the assistance of a translator on Sunday. Clutching her handbag in her arms, Li said that she became upset when the bank told her she’d have to pay $150 to access her safe deposit box as well as $10 for a new bank book.

“I’m glad I’m here,” Leung said as she spoke into the microphone on Sunday among local community and government representatives. “I’m glad all these people came to help us.”