Low-income Detroiters offered free financial counseling

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Low-income residents will now have access to free financial counseling at centers opening up throughout the city, officials announced Monday. 

The first two of six Financial Empowerment Centers planned for Detroit are officially offering services to Detroiters under a partnership between the city of Detroit, Wayne County Treasurer's Office, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at a news conference about Financial Empowerment Centers opening in the city to offer low-income residents access to one-on-one financial counseling help.

Officials said the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency will oversee the effort that will provide one-on-one financial counseling to help low- to moderate-income residents manage finances, pay down debt, increase savings and establish credit.

The initial sites opened Monday in the Wayne County Treasurer's Office at 400 Monroe and Wayne Metro offices at 7310 Woodward. Four additional locations will be added later this year in other parts of Detroit, officials said. 

"This is a message to low- and moderate-income residents: There's more opportunities here in Detroit," Mayor Mike Duggan said during a Monday afternoon news conference in the offices of the county treasurer. "We want to make sure you make more money, and we want to make sure you keep your money." 

Detroit's empowerment centers are supported by $770,000 from the national Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, JPMorgan Chase and The Skillman Foundation as well as the city of Detroit and Wayne County Treasurer's Office.

"We spend a lot of time and effort working with taxpayers who are struggling to pay their taxes and keep their properties. The Financial Empowerment Center is just another tool to give us more ability to go one-on-one with the taxpayers," Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree said. "Sometimes, it's not enough just to share information. Sometimes, you have to be a guide to the individuals who come in for help."

The effort was first piloted in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008.

In 2013, the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund awarded its first grants to replicate the model in five cities through a $16.2 million, three-year investment by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2017 announced a dozen other communities, including Detroit, would join the effort to launch free, one-on-one financial counseling for low-income residents through a $7.75 million investment as part of its American Cities Initiative. 

The model works to pair counseling with other services including job training, housing assistance, water affordability and utility assistance. 

The program's call center is now open to schedule appointments with its four financial counselors. As the program grows, more staff will be added, said Louis D. Piszker, chief executive officer for Wayne Metro.

Piszker said that no Detroiters will be turned away from the assistance.

"Most of the clients that you get coming through the program are low- to moderate-income but anybody that comes in that's having an issue, we'll service them," he said. 

Lakesha Biggs is a financial counselor for the newly opened Financial Empowerment Centers in Detroit.

\Wayne Metro is set up to take more than 3,000 appointments over a two-year period. A six-month financial assistance pilot held last year with five organizations served 283 clients. The program helped 267 of them in avoiding foreclosure, Detroit officials said. 

"Unfortunately, many of our residents are drowning in debt to the point that they are afraid to answer their phones, reach out for assistance or open mail because of aggressive collection efforts," said Lakesha Biggs, one of four Wayne Metro counselors assigned to work with financial empowerment clients. "As a financial counselor, our role is to help them navigate and resolve those issues and behaviors with the common goal of getting them back on track financially."

JPMorgan Chase's $50 million contribution to the empowerment centers is part of its $200 million commitment to connect more Detroiters with economic opportunity.

Across the country, Financial Empowerment Centers have worked with almost 85,000 clients, helping them reduce individual debt by more than $100 million, and increasing their families’ savings by close to $10 million, officials noted Monday.

“Local leaders know first-hand the connection between family financial stability and community financial stability,” said Jonathan Mintz, president and CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund.

“Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree are strong believers in the growing national movement to bring free, high-quality financial counseling as a public service to their residents; we are proud to partner with them on this critical work.” 

To schedule an appointment, residents should call (313) 322-6222 or visit detroitfec.org for more information.