When a crisis strikes, NeighborWorks network organizations have tools to help. During the pandemic, one of the most visible tools was financial counseling, reports Michael Rayder, associate director of development with Maine's Avesta Housing. Individuals in Avesta's apartment rental homes lost jobs, hours and wages. "They needed to re-evaluate how they managed their budgets," Rayder says. "Financial capability was the way for us to provide services for people who were suddenly in crisis mode."
Avesta used a grant from NeighborWorks America's Critical Relief Fund, made possible with a generous contribution from the Wells Fargo Foundation, to support its HomeOwnership Center, which saw increased calls. The funding was beneficial to clients like Gloria, an Avesta resident in Windham, Maine, who fell behind on her rent in September 2020. The center helped her establish a payment plan and bring her rent current.
Last April, as she dealt with cognitive issues as part of her multiple sclerosis, she fell behind again. At that time, emergency rent relief funds were expanding. The HomeOwnership Center staff referred her to the Opportunity Alliance, which helped her access assistance for her balance and for the coming months, giving her time to work with the HOC on a spending plan. Funds she would have used for rent helped her start an emergency savings fund. Working with the HomeOwnership Center and the Opportunity Alliance has been "a total godsend," Gloria says; it provided financial and emotional relief.
The HomeOwnership Center, usually a site for in-person classes and consults, pivoted during the pandemic to help people virtually. "Our biggest difficulty was people who didn't have access to internet services," says Nicole DiGeronimo, the center's director. "But we worked through it. We were hearing from people who just needed a 30-minute phone conversation, to be pointed in the direction of resources, needed a quick plan, or just needed someone to calm them down."
Individuals weren't in the right mindset to go through full counseling courses or programs, she relates. They were panicked and needed help quickly. "We would point them to general assistance funds here, or fuel assistance over there. We were connecting them to the right places and not as worried about transitioning them to become a full HUD client. If they become a client later, great. But having funds that weren't super restrictive was very helpful. This funding helped bridge the gap."
Many of the residents Avesta helped worked in frontline services. Portland, Maine, is a tourist destination, but as the pandemic began, there were no tourists. "People didn't travel. They didn't go out to eat. Even hospital staff was laid off as hospitals delayed elective surgeries. We were getting so many questions: How to apply for paycheck protection programs. How to apply for unemployment."
The HomeOwnership Center staff worked with more than 250 different individuals over nearly 900 appointments. "That's just with Avesta residents," DiGeronimo says. She adds that things are still tough in Maine. "Our homebuyer education used to be the joyful side of our program. Now people are frustrated and panicked. We're getting calls from renters saying, ‘Our landlord is selling.' They don't know what to do or where to go."
Rayder points out that much of the federal relief funding out there still hasn't made it to the beneficiaries. "There's a disconnect between what we see and hear when we turn on the news and what we see in reality." Meanwhile, property values continue to increase, pushing out the people at the bottom of the housing continuum. According to the Maine Association of Realtors, the statewide median sales price increased in June by $5,000 to $310,000.
"We try to keep people's focus on what we can do," DiGeronimo says. "We try to keep the focus on counseling and getting credit in shape so when something does come up, you're the complete package; you're the tenant somebody wants. We joke that it's not housing counseling anymore. It's like being a life coach."
NeighborWorks network organizations were able to quickly shift their services early in the pandemic, shares Molly Barackman-Eder, director of Financial Capability for NeighborWorks America. "They moved from a long-term, asset-building focus to leading with a crisis response first, with long-term financial capability coming into play after people stabilized. We saw a lot of NeighborWorks organizations modifying tried and true tools like budgets to include emergency resources that could help people stay afloat during a job loss or reduction in hours." Working through a problem with a financial coach or counselor during a crisis, as in the case of Avesta's clients, provides a stronger foundation for those clients to build their financial lives when the crisis subsides, she adds.
"It can't be overstated just how important the availability of a finance counselor at a critical moment in someone's change in a financial life can be," agrees Hallie Lienhardt, assistant director at the Center for Financial Security at University of Wisconsin. "Especially if, as in so many cases during the pandemic, other things in life also in flux. Being able to have a trusted source who can provide information, set a plan, and help someone follow through on action is extremely important, especially now."