The Center is among several major urban investments announced by Fifth Third Bank this past year, including its moving its regional headquarters to the One Woodward Building and its 5/3 in the D initiative, an $85 million commitment to Detroit.
The bank was the first to open a HOPE Inside Center and is actively supporting external partner recruitment efforts headed by Mayor Duggan, the Detroit Regional Chamber (DRC) and Operation HOPE Founder John Hope Bryant. The Center will provide credit counseling and other services to help Detroiters get back on the road to financial stability.
Across the nation those centers have successfully raised credit scores an average of 120 points by providing credit and home ownership counseling, entrepreneurial training and money management workshops. The “Big Three” stakeholders hope to open and operate 20 Detroit-based neighborhood centers by the end of 2016.
“The move made sense,” says Byna Elliott, senior vice president of community development at Fifth Third Bank.
“Operating out of the NAC allows us to break down customer barriers. The NAC is not as stuffy and intimidating as a traditional banking environment can be. And, it’s someplace that neighborhood residents are already familiar with,” Elliott says.
Each one of Fifth Third’s five Detroit-based branch locations also supports the Center by referring potential/current clients to services offered at the NAC office. The Centers are open evenings and weekends and offer private one-on-one counseling in addition to group training sessions.
It’s a good match, according to Elliott, who notes that the respective offices “complement” one another.
WARM & WELCOMING
Visitors at the Center receive a warm greeting from “Coach” Crystal Nickson, who is on a first name basis with her clients. The part cheerleader, champion and change agent establishes a personal rapport with customers before she get down to the business of gently guiding them toward obtaining financial security.
She understands how “low you can go.” The former accountant and tax law instructor was once among the 45 million people living in poverty in the U.S. At her lowest point, she was homeless.
Her personal experience gives her credibility with clients, which is crucial to creating the trust needed for successful counseling. So she often goes to her clients and operates a mobile office. She spends about 50 percent of her time at community block club meetings, churches and UAW halls, among other locations.
She tells her clients there are two introductory steps to financial security.
The first is honesty. The second is accountability. Clients have to be willing to do the work to get their financial house in order.
There are big benefits to the program. People are often surprised to see how much money they can save on their insurance rates, car and home loans just by raising their score 120 points or more, Elliott says.
HELPS FIND JOBS
Among the more invisible benefits of the program is its ability to impact employment. Many job providers now use credit scores as a means of assessing a candidate’s viability to maintain employment. If a candidate’s credit score is low, it is often seen as a signal that other troubles lurk beneath the surface.
Elliott wishes the center had been in place during the 2008 economic downturn.
“Although we had programs in place to help struggling homeowners during the downturn, more than 75 percent of the families struggling to pay their monthly mortgage payments, would not even answer our calls,” she says. “They were embarrassed and fearful of bankers. “And, as a consequence far too many lost their homes, despite the fact that help was available.”
That’s why Elliott is an ardent advocate of the Centers.
The main goals of HOPE Inside Centers are to:
- Lift customer credit scores to 700
- Help customers manage their assets and meet their financial goals
- Offer long-term credit counseling
- Offer customer-friendly workshops
- Provide small business education
Fifth Third Bank does not see the program as competitive and is encouraging other financial institutions and large employers to support the opening of additional centers. The bank is already seeing a lift in new “unbanked” customers now opening new accounts and using Fifth Third Bank’s products and services.
“There is plenty of need in our community,” says Elliott. “This is an opportunity to step up and help in a very measurable way.”
One customer improved her credit score enough to move from a 16 percent car loan rate to a 2.99 percent rate, which will save her $5,718 over the 5-year term of her $15,000 loan.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from this kind of accomplishment,” says Elliott.
Editor’s Note: Deloitte, Henry Ford Health System and the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services have also stepped-up to sponsor HOPE Inside centers and PNC Bank will sponsor a HOPE Business Inside a Box program aimed at students grades 4-12. HOPE Center supporters also are encouraging large employers, like automakers, casinos and healthcare organizations, to open and support HOPE Inside Centers and related programs. For additional information visit: operationhope.org/detroit
Photos by Paul Engstrom