A Financial Shelter For Vulnerable Homeowners

A collaboration between Freedom First FCU and a local nonprofit is helping consumers ensure they can afford to buy a home and stay there for the long haul.

As housing affordability remains a major challenge nationwide, a partnership in Virginia involving Freedom First Federal Credit Union ($1.1B, Roanoke, VA) is ensuring low-income consumers can afford to not only buy a home but stay in it for the long-term.

According to the Urban Institute, homeowners who spend more than 30% of their income on housing increased from 37% in 2018 to 51% in 2022. Higher interest rates and home prices have had an even bigger impact on lower-income households, with that share increasing from 58% to 71%.

Since 2010, an employee of Freedom First FCU has served on the board of Renovation Alliance, a local nonprofit previously known as Rebuilding Together that is focused on providing critical home repairs to improve the dwellings and lives of low-income homeowners. Partnering with organizations like this is one way Freedom First, which is also a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), measures its value. In fact, the credit union’s annual community impact report sums it up nicely, “At Freedom First, we measure our value by how much we give back.”

Allison Wolf, Housing Advocate, Freedom First FCU

“We want to give back and fulfill our mission as a credit union,” says Allison Wolf, a housing advocate for Freedom First who has spent approximately a decade serving on the board of Renovation Alliance. “And housing is such an important part of serving our community.”

Renovation Alliance is structured to maximize its positive impact on vulnerable residents. For example, it enlists the help of volunteers to perform repairs so it can direct its funds toward purchasing materials. The nonprofit completes hundreds of projects a year, one of which is a renovation day sponsored in part by Freedom First.

“The credit union sponsors a home,” Wolf says. “The sponsorship dollars go toward the purchase of materials and supplies a team of volunteers to make the repairs.”

Freedom First’s November 2023 sponsored project included a collaboration with Team Rubicon, a worldwide disaster recovery organization whose local manager is also a credit union employee.

Together, volunteers replaced 21 windows and a storm door as well as made critical repairs — including to a handrail, a bathroom, and a safety ramp — to improve the accessibility and safety of the home of Donald and Mary Bryant, who raised their children in the house and cherish the thought of being able to continue living in it.

“The husband was born in the house and is a veteran, so it was a special project,” Wolf says.

Donald Bryant was born in the house on Cravens Creek four years after his father built it in 1930. It’s a piece of family history — one that was in bad need of repairs. “It’s almost like getting a new home,” says Mary Bryant of the repairs completed to her home during a recent renovation day. “We know how fortunate we are, and we’re so thankful.”

Renovation Alliance, along with Freedom First and others, participate in Healthy Homes Roanoke, a public-private collaboration focused on making homes safer, healthier, and greener for vulnerable residents. Healthy Homes pulls all available resources into one central hub to take a more holistic approach to helping low-income homeowners. This approach also allows it to uncover needs that might not be obvious, such as whether small children live in a home and whether lead-based paint abatement is needed.

Once critical repairs are complete, Freedom First looks for ways to help homeowners ensure they don’t fall into the same cycle down the road.

“In cases where a financial burden was the root cause, we encourage residents to take advantage of our financial empowerment education services,” Wolf says. “We don’t only want to help them during a crisis, we also want to help them become financially secure overall.”

Freedom First runs the City of Roanoke’s Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center, as a service of its 501(c)(3) charitable organization. There, Freedom First provides professional, one-on-one financial counseling at no-cost to Roanoke area residents.

Although the primary goal of Freedom First is to simply give back to its community, the credit union has found its partnerships and good work earn the cooperative a lot of business.

“People see us out there supporting the same causes they are passionate about,” Wolf says.

Supporting local organizations often leads to new banking relationships with individual consumers as well as business owners who want to support the credit union thanks to its volunteerism and consideration of those in need of assistance.

“As a CDFI, we strive to serve vulnerable communities on a daily basis,” Wolf says. “Being involved with nonprofits in our area is important to us. It’s wonderful to watch members benefit as we reinvest a portion of our net profits back into the community.”

In terms of identifying nonprofit partners, Freedom First encourages employees to volunteer in the community. An internal committee ensures the credit union itself remains focused on key areas, but individual employees may follow their passion.

Volunteers for the annual Community Renovation Day repaired homes for six households in need. Read local coverage.

For Wolf, her focus is on housing.

Roanoke has a largely rural footprint with an infrastructure built around colleges and healthcare. The growth in local housing costs has continued to outpace average, middle-income salary increases, leaving many residents’ budgets stretched thin.

Through serving on the Renovation Alliance board, Wolf has had a front-row seat as the nonprofit quantifies community housing needs and tracks its progress through the number of repair projects it completes, the number of homeowners it helps, and the number of programs it uses.

For credit unions that want to make a bigger difference through community partnerships, Wolf’s advice is simple.

“Interact with different groups,” she says. “Listen to what’s going on locally so you can bring those conversations back to your credit union.”

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February 26, 2024

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