Express Credit Union Partners with City of Seattle to Help Vulnerable Consumers Gain Basic Financial Skills

Sharon Hall believes in Express Credit Union’s commitment to serving Washington’s low-income communities, but she’s never been willing to settle for simply providing access to financial products and services.

“All the products and services are great,” says Hall, the credit union’s CEO, “but unless you know how to use them, all you have is an account. We want to provide people with equal opportunity, but if we just provide them with a savings account, that’s not equal opportunity.”

“Education,” she says, “is what puts people on the same playing field.”

Financial literacy is so deeply embedded in the Express mission that the credit union turned to Seattle-area social-service agencies to help it develop the products and services it offers to underserved members — and to help the credit union provide access, education and one-on-one financial counseling to both members and non-members.

Now, Express is doubling down on that effort.

When the city of Seattle opens six “Financial Empowerment Centers” in 2014 to help vulnerable consumers gain fundamental financial skills, Community Tellers from Express and its nonprofit Express Advantage will play a significant role. Staff will offer member services (including access to savings accounts and unbundled checking accounts), approve alternatives to payday loans and provide financial coaching.

Express will be the only financial institution in the Financial Empowerment Centers, Hall says, with a full-time teller at a central hub and mobile tellers at the other locations.

The centers — the first of their kind on the West Coast — will be modeled on a successful project launched by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008 that has helped more than 19,000 families reduce their debt by more than $9 million. A three-year, $1.8 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation will fund a central storefront in Rainier Valley and five satellite centers around the city, where nearly one in 10 residents lives below the poverty line.

Clients will be referred to the centers by more than 100 social-service and nonprofit agencies throughout the Seattle area. At the centers, clients will use free, one-on-one financial coaching to help them build credit and clean up their financial histories. The city also plans to provide other services, including legal advice and help with enrolling in subsidized medical programs.

Susan Coliton, vice president of the Allen Family Foundation, says the centers hope to target people most vulnerable to predatory lending and credit-card debt and who lack access to banking services. “When we invest in people’s potential,” she says, “we invest in the city’s future, its health and its vitality.”

Express has made that kind of investment since 2009, working with Hopelink, YWCA Opportunity Place, Washington State WorkSource, North Seattle Community College, Neighborhood House, Housing Hope and others to “change the lives of those who are typically rejected by the financial services industry,” Hall says.

(Express is a community development financial institution and a low-income-designated credit union, which means that more than 50 percent of its membership lives in areas where average wages are below 80 percent of the national median income.)

“We believe that it takes a village,” Hall says, “and that by getting the entire community involved on a cooperative, grassroots level, we can help low-income people and those teetering on poverty to build their assets.”

Seattle hopes to launch its Financial Empowerment Centers in early 2014. City officials say they will be located near where people most likely to benefit from the services live, including southeast Seattle, Georgetown, Sand Point and the downtown core.

 

Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Article Post.