Journal of Housing & Community Development

Award of Excellence: Financial Freedom Program

December 16, 2019

The Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority (PRHA) wins a 2018 Award of Excellence in Resident and Client Services for the Financial Freedom Program, which provided free financial literacy classes for their residents. Nominated from among the NAHRO Award of Merit winners each year, the Awards of Excellence winners are chosen by national juries and honored at the annual National Conference and Exhibition in October. They represent the very best in innovative programs in assisted housing and community development.   

study released by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) found more than 600,000 or 20 percent of Virginia’s 2.9 million households are considered unbanked or underbanked, forces people to use costly alternative financial services, such as check cashing and payday loans. The Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s (PRHA) Family Self Sufficiency Program (FSSP) created the Financial Freedom Program to address the frequent financial crises that many of their residents face due to being unbanked or lacking the financial literacy needed to make informed financial decisions.   

PRHA’s Family Self Sufficiency program obtained a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the City of Portsmouth, which provided funding for the $100 stipend for FSSP participants who completed the program. Due to funding restrictions from the CDBG grant, Track One could only enroll a maximum of 7 participants per class and Track Two could accommodate 15 participants per class.

PRHA partnered with agencies such as The Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia, The Urban League of Hampton Roads, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the UP Center to enhance their program’s curriculum and to offer different professional perspectives on financial independence. The Legal Aid Society of Southeastern Virginia, facilitated sessions about Predatory Lending Practices, Consumer Rights and Identity Theft. The UP Center, gave a presentation on Debt and Credit Repair Assistance. Collaboration with their community partners was key to the success of the program. 

The Financial Literacy Program was based on a two-track module. FSSP Track One was designed for residents enrolled in the Family Self Sufficiency Program and participated in a three-week version of the class. Public Housing Track Two is for residents who were not enrolled in FSSP and were identified by their property manager as chronically late in paying their rent. Participants in both tracks received the same information. Participates had to obtain a score of 70 percent or higher on the post-test, attend all classes, actively participate in class discussions and activities, show six months of deposits into a traditional bank account to successfully complete the program and receive the $100 financial incentive. 

Starting in June 2017, the Financial Freedom Program has held quarterly for both Track One and Track Two participants. Track One participants attended class twice a week for a month and Track Two is an accelerated class in which participants attended class every day for one week. The Bank On Hampton Roads’ curriculum was used during the classes and each session covered one of the topics listed below:  

  • Motivation and Goal Setting  
  • The Basics of Budgeting and Banking  
  • Debt and Credit Reports  
  • Credit Restoration  
  • Predatory Lending  
  • Home Ownership 

In addition to using traditional learning methods, the class facilitator used fun and interactive activities such as Financial Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, other puzzles and homework assignments that focused on real-life experiences. A question and answer session was held at the end of each class to ensure that participants understood the topics discussed in class. Transportation to and from classes was provided and participants were treated to a nutritious meal before the start of each class. During the final night of class, participants completed a survey to review the program’s strengths and weaknesses as well as to provide feedback to improve the course. 

Since the start of the program, 32 participants from both tracks have successfully completed the program. Results from the pre- and post-test administered to all participants showed that the financial literacy knowledge of the program participants improved by 43 percent. After the first class, 71 percent of the participants enrolled in Track One received the $100 financial incentive. Additionally, 45 percent of the participants now have traditional bank accounts and 15 percent of these participants decreased their debt by five percent. 

Two of the major challenges the program faced was the participant’s prior banking history and poor attendance. Some program participates didn’t qualify for a traditional banking account due to frequent overdrafts and unpaid charges. To address this challenge, the FSSP team worked with community banks to waive fees and forgive bad debt. Also, PRHA property managers noted a decrease in late rent payments from residents that completed Track Two of the program. The financial incentive was used to encourage attendance. 

PRHAy will continue to offer the Financial Freedom class to FSSP participants and their public housing residents. Most of the course activities are free so the program would not be greatly affected by a decrease in federal funding. Other agencies can replicate their program model by working with their community partners, researching free online resources, and looking for grant opportunities to further support their program. 

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