Banking on change: Nonprofit offers alternative to predatory lending

BankOn, a financial education and low-interest loan program offered by a nonprofit that has partnered with the City of Charlottesville, gave Barbara Fitch the knowledge she needed to get her personal finances on track. BankOn, a financial education and low-interest loan program offered by a nonprofit that has partnered with the City of Charlottesville, gave Barbara Fitch the knowledge she needed to get her personal finances on track.

In May 2012,  Barbara Fitch had no savings account, a battered credit score, and a lavish shoe buying habit. She had racked up hefty debt and was trapped in a high-rate loan for a used car, even though she was bringing in a steady paycheck as the catering sales manager at the Inn at Darden, where she’s worked for eight years.

“I was really struggling financially,” said Fitch.

But then Fitch, 45, heard financial advisor Corbin Hargraves on 92.7 Kiss FM’s “Money Matters” show. Fitch called him, and months later ended up enrolling in BankOn, a free program administered by the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Coalition for Economic Opportunity. CEO, as it’s known, was founded in 2012 by locals—many of them familiar names in the social services scene here—who believed giving people alternatives to high-interest predatory lending services like payday and car title loans, was key to breaking the cycle of poverty. The BankOn program, launched in April 2013, is their primary tool. It offers no-fee banking services and low-interest loans, plus financial education classes from volunteers like Hargraves.

It worked for Fitch. “Corbin looked at my finances and said, ‘This is fixable, you just need a plan,’” she recalled. Within months, Fitch had completed a financial education and budgeting class through BankOn. She opened a savings account and started putting money away for her future. She began to boost her credit score. She curbed excessive spending habits while sticking to a budget. The guidance, she said, was “extremely helpful in getting me to see the big picture and not get overwhelmed.”

Fitch is one of more than 175 people who have gone through BankOn’s financial program since it launched a year and a half ago. But the program has reached a difficult impasse. CEO was founded with support from the City of Charlottesville, with the agreement that the city would initially fund half the program’s operating costs, and scale down its support over several years as CEO stepped up its portion of funding for BankOn. The city has delivered on its funding promises, but CEO has had difficulty—for a variety of reasons—raising money either through grants or fundraising efforts, said Mike Murphy, the city’s director of human services. In the current fiscal year, the city is providing $25,416, but the program needs an additional $12,207 to pay for the health benefits of a part-time staff coordinator.

In the meantime, BankOn has been left in the hands of three volunteers—Hargraves, Cherie Seise, and Emily Dreyfus, the community education and outreach director for the Legal Aid Justice Center—to maintain the program’s services using whatever free time they have.

Seise used to work full-time as BankOn’s program coordinator, but stepped down this past April to take another job. And without someone dedicated to promoting and guiding the program, Dreyfus said BankOn isn’t reaching as many people as it could, leaving it treading water when it could be making greater strides and helping break cycles of poverty.

“Corbin and I doing volunteer work and Cherie doing a little bit of volunteer work is not enough,” said Dreyfus. “We have to have a staff coordinator who will take the program to the next level.”

So now BankOn is asking the city for the additional funds. The new hire would do more outreach in public housing and low-income communities, lead more frequent financial education and budgeting classes, and provide clients with more consistent one-on-one financial mentoring.

The program tries to steer people away from check-cashing outlets by linking them with institutions that don’t have minimum balance fines and other potentially debilitating fees. Partner banks BB&T, Union First Market Bank, the UVA Community Credit Union, and Virginia National Bank have all joined with BankOn to give their clients that opportunity.

LaTonya Lewis is one of those clients. She has had bank accounts in the past, but had to close them. At one point she took a payday loan, and had every penny in her banking account garnished by the company to repay the loan. As a result, she was denied a future account with that bank, and it hurt her credit report, preventing her from opening accounts with many other banks in the city.

But BankOn gave Lewis a second chance. Last year, she heard an ad on the radio for BankOn and immediately called Seise to enroll in the program. Lewis went through a screening process, took a financial education class, and opened bank accounts for and her husband at what is now Union First Market bank.

“It helped me recognize the mistakes I had made before, along the lines of managing my accounts and keeping track of my own funds,” she said.

But BankOn is only effective if it’s used, said Dreyfus and Hargraves. And so if people who use check-cashing stores and payday loans don’t know about BankOn, or even if they don’t understand why these practices hurt them, then the program is not succeeding where it could, said Dreyfus.

“It is a little tougher than I anticipated to actually find the people who could really benefit from the program,” said Dreyfus, who works on BankOn issues about five hours a week. “What we found is that some folks are unbanked for what they view as very good reasons. They don’t want to overcome that pattern. So a challenging piece for us has been figuring out how to help people get in the door.”

The new part-time position would tackle that problem, as well as help solve the current dilemma over how to continue funding the program’s operating costs in the future, said Dreyfus. The prospective position would also be required to fundraise, write grants, and solicit private donations, she said.

City Manager Maurice Jones said he’s considering the funding request, and is looking at ways the city and CEO can benefit each other.

“Staff will be presenting a recommendation to the City Councilors during the second meeting in November to gauge their interest in this approach,” Jones said in an e-mail.

Mike Murphy said the city remains supportive of BankOn and is entertaining several other possibilities that could give the program the staff it needs to further its goals. He wouldn’t comment on the details, but said the alternatives are still in the planning process.

“The goals of BankOn are still very important,” said Murphy. He said the city does want to see people enter the financial mainstream, because “it’s really hard for low income people to get out from underneath those predatory lending practices.”


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