In 2008, a housing crisis rocked the national economy, leading government offices to be overrun with phone calls requesting financial and housing assistance. In response, the New York City government quickly developed a new financial assistance program that helped thousands of residents to get back on their feet. Soon that successful program was reproduced in five other major cities, inspiring local government officials, nonprofits and funders to rally together to bring the Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) to Central New York in 2019.
The Syracuse FEC addresses a variety of residents’ financial concerns, from paying bills and saving for the future, to settling delinquent accounts and righting the wrongs of identity theft. Additionally, its clients are sometimes trying to establish good credit after a new financial situation such as a divorce, transitioning from a role as a student to a professional, or immigrating to the United States. Along the way, FEC has reported that not only does its clients gain financial stability, they also carve out a financial path in which they can thrive into the future.
Clients are welcome to contact the Syracuse FEC with any financial concerns and they may meet with a counselor as many times as is necessary to get their finances and credit squared away. Any resident, 18 years of age or older, of Syracuse and the surrounding area, is eligible for services regardless of their income or financial status. FEC’s well-trained and knowledgeable counselors help clients with tough-to-navigate situations by explaining how to resolve concerns and even doing the hard work, like providing the letters to validate and/or dispute derogatory accounts or to banks who are charging exorbitant overdraft fees.
Under the shadow of COVID-19, Syracuse’s concentration of poverty has hit an all-time high. According to the Community Foundation’s Life Needs Assessment data, which tracks needs such as transportation, food security and childcare, two of the most troubling problems Syracuse-area residents are currently struggling with are paying bills and saving money for the future. The survey shows that 30% of residents cannot pay monthly bills due to job loss. Another 40% say that they can’t save enough money for their future or for emergencies.
“We helped to bring the FEC here because a piece of the poverty equation is that a lot of people are unbanked, meaning that they don’t have banks and they’re not growing wealth,” said Frank Ridzi, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Community Foundation. “They don’t have access to home loans and personal loans. The FEC was designed to address that issue, building off of the Jargowsky report, which stated that Syracuse was number one in the nation for concentrated poverty for Blacks and Latinos in 2015.”
After a gathering in 2019 with city and nonprofit representatives, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Dr. Jonnell Robinson and Terry Eckert wrote a grant to bring the FEC to Syracuse. Across the country, FECs are designed to be a city government service partnered with a nonprofit. In Syracuse, the City of Syracuse partnered with Home HeadQuarters and The United Way of Central New York.
Funding from the City of Syracuse, the Community Foundation, the H.O.P.E. Anti-Poverty Initiative and others allows FEC to offer its services free of charge to all Syracuse residents. In Syracuse, 714 clients have been served since its inception two years ago. It has had over 2,287 sessions in which its clients have asked questions and resolved issues about their finances.
The FEC measures success through four different outcomes: credit, banking, debt and savings. A 35-point rise on a credit report signifies a good credit result. A reduction of non-mortgage debt by at least 10% is considered successful. Accessing safe and affordable bank accounts is successful when accounts are opened, typically after correcting issues that may have been an obstacle to banking found on a Chex Systems report. Lastly, the savings goal is realized when one week’s worth of household income is saved in the bank.
Data shows that Syracuse’s FEC is one of the nation’s top producers, reporting more clients achieving outcomes than other FEC’s around the country. Other FECs average 25% in outcomes, while the Syracuse FEC is averaging 47-50% in successful results. Over Syracuse FEC’s short tenure, it has brought $851,836 of increased savings for clients and reduced $1,751,855 in personal debt.
“We have a woman who, during COVID, lost her job and was living in homelessness,” said Mary Margaret O’Hara, former city manager of the Syracuse FEC. “She started working with one of our counselors and not only found a new job, but was able to find safe and stable housing. She even had a couple of thousand dollars saved in the bank, all in a period of 10 months.”
Another resident who hadn’t worked for fifteen years was financially shocked when his wife was laid off due to the pandemic. He decided to start his own company and his FEC counselor connected him with the small business administration for guidance. He started his business and soon felt financially stable.
Moving into financial stability is important to all of the Syracuse FEC’s clients. It’s also critical to our entire community for Syracuse to build intergenerational wealth and security, especially for our Black and Latino populations. With more economic opportunities, the unhealthy wealth gap in Central New York will be lessened and Syracuse’s residents can thrive into the future.