Innovative agency meets broader financial needs of consumers

Published: Monday, February 05, 2018

Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) shared news on offering more services and expansion.

Long-term Consumer Action network partner Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) aims to ensure that all low- and moderate-income California residents, particularly those most vulnerable, are able to live a safe, healthy financial life, free of discrimination and other abuses.

Before 2010, HERA staff worked in the trenches on predatory mortgage problems and foreclosure prevention. In 2010, the agency expanded its scope of services to include a plethora of other household financial concerns. Now, its staff covers student loan problems, credit card debt, automobile financing, alternative energy scams, payday loans, bail bonds, credit reporting problems, and a vast array of other credit and debt issues affecting the poorest of residents as well as those with moderate income. HERA continues to promote homeowner protections, which go beyond mortgage-related concerns. The staff is focused on proactively helping consumers understand how debt and credit affect their lives, and not just on solving problems after they happen.

In late December, HERA’s executive director, Maeve Elise Brown, contacted Consumer Action’s associate director of outreach and training, Audrey Perrott, to share exciting news about HERA’s plans to scale the agency to offer more services and enlarge its footprint with two new offices. Perrot (AP) took the opportunity to ask Brown (MB) some questions.

AP: When did you expand to offer estate planning and financial management services?

MB: In 2017, I introduced estate planning to HERA's menu of services. I had been anxious to do this for some years, as I recognized this was a huge gap in services for the public. I see it as being intimately related to addressing the racial and gender wealth gap in our state (which is also a national problem).

AP:Is the estate planning offered exclusively to low-to-moderate income consumers?

MB: Our estate planning service, like all of our other services, is available to both moderate-income and low-income residents.

AP: Is there an income ceiling for the estate planning services?

MB: Our sliding scale applies only to the estate planning services, and it is very generous, so that, for example, a single person could have an income of $25,000 per year and still get a complete estate plan for free. The scale creeps upward from there. We are currently providing the services only in California. We also offer estate planning workshops, which are free! We love sharing information with the public about what an estate plan is, and how it helps. Our two estate planning attorneys bring estate planning as well as probate court experience, though we are not offering probate-related services at this time.

AP: Please tell us about your agency’s unique language capacity and in-language printed materials and web content?

MB: Our staff speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French and Korean, and we use interpreters for the many other languages spoken by our clients. Most of our printed materials are available in six languages on the HERA website and our Money Happy companion website.

AP: How long have you partnered with Consumer Action?

MB: We have had a strong connection to your organization since I first opened our doors in 2005. We have presented at and attended Consumer Action educational events over the years. HERA staffers presented at two housing and two debt collection train-the-trainer events hosted by Consumer Action.

AP: What topics does HERA staff train on most frequently?

MB: Access to credit and improving credit are huge concerns for residents across the state, from our reentry clients to clients living in shelters, to clients who have moderate incomes. Addressing how to pay for college and how to handle already incurred student loan debt also are tremendously popular topics.

AP: When did HERA enter the FinTech (financial technology) arena?

MB: In our modern financial services world, low- and moderate-income residents interact with and are affected by FinTech services. HERA's support helps them navigate this arena of services, and we work on the policy front to protect residents from possible abuses, as well as to preserve opportunities. I served on the CFPB's Consumer Advisory Board for five years and was chair in my final year of service. FinTech was a topic of significant discussion and great concern to us.

(Editorial note: HERA clients are using the FinTech tools SaverLife, Digit and Lending Circles. However, client usage is limited.)

HERA offers EARN’s SaverLife as a resource to our clients, but it is underutilized. We hope to increase use and are exploring approaches. Digit is very useful for some clients.

AP: Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about HERA or the work that you are doing in California?

MB: We are about to open our first Southern California office, based on the significant demand and need for our services, and plan to open an office in Central California, as well, in 2018.

AP: Are there any best practices that you would like to share in terms of community education, program development, capacity building or reassessing mission to keep pace with the growing needs of your clients?

MB: HERA is highly flexible, so that we are responsive to the shifting needs of low- and moderate-income residents in real time, as those shifts occur. At the same time, the shifts we make remain within the framework of our mission [to assist vulnerable consumers live safe, healthy financial lives, free of discrimination and other abuses].

To learn more about HERA, visit the organization’s website.

 

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