Residents cash in on free financial counseling – Akron Beacon Journal

Posted: September 19, 2019 at 6:41 am


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Karen Bailey welds for a metal fabricator. It's honest work with decent pay, but the 55-year-old Akron grandmother is tired of throwing her money away on rent every month.

Raised in East Cleveland, Bailey struggled financially without a lot of family help. After the first of her seven children was born, she dropped out of high school and took a series of factory jobs. She lost a couple jobs, she recalled, when she brought a child to work after she could not find or afford a sitter or daycare.

The children have since graduated college or picked up a trade like their mother did. One has a commercial driver's license. Another is a public accountant. Finally able to focus on herself, Bailey decided last June to seek that long-sought financial advice at a recently shuttered Huntington Bank on Kenmore Boulevard. The branch location had just reopened as the Akron Financial Empowerment Center.

There, she thought, she would get the financial help and attention she missed growing up.

I want to buy my own house, she said, having lifted her credit score to a respectable 620 after a year of pulling her credit report, learning how to read it and then pulling it again, over and over. I am going to buy my own house.

Bailey checks her 401k each month. She pays her bills on time and always makes more than the minimum payment. She understands how the big three credit reporting agencies monitor different aspects of her borrowing. And she watches her FICO score like a hawk.

Hooey, she said. Its going to go up higher. I can do some things at my age.

Bailey, now attending home-buying and credit-building classes at East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation, is a first-year success story in a effort to empower local residents with financial skills that could reap dividends for them, their children and the entire community.

With five offices operating throughout Greater Akron and two more opening next month at Robinson and Helen Arnold Community Learning Centers, Akrons Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) program has so far helped 708 clients budget their money and bank accounts by understanding how to manage debt and access safe credit. To meet more clients, the center prepared 2,400 income tax returns in the past year at no charge.

According to figures released by FEC, the first 708 clients have collectively saved $258,563 and reduced their debt $289,384. The program is free and open to anyone in Summit County, regardless of income.

The operation is run by Angela Lowery, whose background is in nonprofit management, under the auspices of the United Way of Summit County in collaboration with the city, county and dozens of partners from low-income housing providers, community support organizations, libraries and employers that refer or help clients.

At 37 percent white with a median household income of $25,000, the first-year clients are skewing minority and low-income. This is the population civic and business leaders hope to uplift with economic equity plans like Elevate Akron.

Nearly two-thirds of clients enroll with no savings. About one in seven lacks a bank account. Many live in neighborhoods that lack banks with low or no fees, which the FEC is delivering to clients through partnerships with financial institutions in the Bank On program.

On Thursday, a staff member at the Kenmore location copied a 0% loan application from a program partner that helps borrowers with bad credit. A woman took some advice then grabbed the application and raced out to get to another bank before it closed.

Moments later, an older man in a button-up dress shirt and slacks walked in from the heat. An ad for the program arrived in his water bill. Everyone got the marketing ad, which the city pushed on social media.

Im overwhelmed in debt, said the man, who sat in the waiting room, too proud to give his name to a reporter asking about his personal finances.

For some, its not about servicing debt. Its dealing with collections, said Lowery. People accustomed to dodging debt collectors distrust banks, which can make them even more vulnerable to predatory lending.

Sometimes people bring envelopes (from debt collectors) that they have just not opened, because they have such a fear of these things, said Lowery. Just having [a financial coach] open it with you, sort it out with you, explain what it is, help you come up with a plan that can be such a huge relief.

The FEC comes at no cost for taxpayers or clients. It was launched on grants of $20,000 from Bloomberg Philanthropies and $250,000 from the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. That money runs out in 2020, after which the United Way, which has contributed $300,000, has agreed to sustain the program.

Most people need to know about this program, said Rufus Willis, who is getting help from FEC.

He said "there are so many of us out there" who, for a variety of reasons, don't have access to financial services.

Willis said he grew up in Chicago, making a living the wrong way with money coming in one hand and out the other. He doesnt recall financial life lessons at school or home.

Whatever you want, it takes money to get it. That's what he remembers. They dont tell you nothing about credit or anything else, he said.

Willis moved to Akron and started a carpentry business in 1990. He made good money, he said, until a lung disease diagnosis in 2012 ended his hammer-swinging days.

He now drags an oxygen tank and lives on Social Security disability benefits and a few thousand dollars he's saved. His girlfriend, who worked 30 years in a local pie factory, played her financial cards right. She just bought a house in East Akron for $40,000.

Willis didnt even think about co-signing for the loan. Applicants who try to get homes with his 540 credit score face high interest rates, hefty down payments or flat-out rejection.

He's at the FEC learning the value of creditworthiness. The center helped him get a secured credit card through KeyBank. He draws down his deposit and replenishes the account monthly to show the big boys at national credit agencies that he can be trusted with a loan.

That makes all the difference in the world, said Rufus, whos looking forward to the day he can buy his grandkids something nice from a magazine without paying too much on interest. Thats what credit is all about.

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

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Residents cash in on free financial counseling - Akron Beacon Journal

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September 19th, 2019 at 6:41 am