Saving and Securing
Prosperity Center Offers Financial Assistance, Literacy
Mandie Otto was living in Section 8 housing in Frederick with her two young daughters when she learned about the Prosperity Center’s savings account program and how it could help her set aside money for a new home. Next month—five years after becoming homeless and six months after opening a United Way Prosperity Savings Account—Otto will buy a house. The program matched $3 to every $1 Otto saved toward a home, growing the $3,600 she set aside to $14,400—enough for a down payment.
“Just the prospect that I can buy a house, and that I’m going around looking for houses, is totally amazing and life-changing,” Otto says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done for my self-esteem. I’ve gone from a really bad state to a really stable environment for the kids and it’s just awesome—in the real sense of the word, not just how some people casually say it.”
Josh Pedersen, CEO of the United Way of Frederick County, says, “That transformation is exactly what the Prosperity Center is all about. It doesn’t have to be homeless-to-homeownership for everyone—transforming to some form of financial independence is the goal.”
In partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick and the Frederick County Financial Literacy Coalition, the United Way of Frederick County cut a ribbon on the Prosperity Center at 629 N. Market St. in April 2014 with the goal to improve the financial stability of half of the county’s 16,000 working-poor residents during a 10-year period.
Just shy of its two-year anniversary at the Bernard W. Brown Community Center, Pedersen says that about 30 people have signed up for the center’s “Credit Café” events, held in partnership with the Interfaith Housing Alliance, to help interested participants learn about their credit scores and how to improve them. Seven families have signed up for the Prosperity Savings Account program, which started last September, to save for a home, car, small business or education.
The center is also offering free tax preparation to qualified citizens; it was able to double the number of families assisted from 2014, helping 852 families file taxes in 2015, claiming $1.2 million in earned-income tax credits, Pedersen says. “We need to be doing so much more. Every time I see a family struggling to get their groceries or going down to the food bank, I know we need to do more. I would love to make sure that more families are financially stable.”
‘Out of Poverty’
Thanks to a grant from the Ausherman Family Foundation, Pedersen says in the next few years the center will focus on scaling services, tracking and measuring the center’s success and increasing outreach and collaboration with other service groups.
Angie Liddiard, who was hired last September as the center’s first manager, says, “My goal is collective impact. The philosophy of the United Way is to unite the community—unite all these groups together—and achieve something.”
Liddiard is tasked with overseeing the center’s financial stability programs, starting her career in Utah working for FranklinCovey, a company modeled after Stephen R. Covey’s popular book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. She later worked as a stay-at-home mom and founded Working the Home, LLC, a home- and life-management company. “I got a great foundation and got an education at an early age that I really wish we had gotten in school,” she says. “Nobody was ever taught about debt, how to buy a house, save for retirement or how to manage their money. Money controls everything that we do—it touches everything that we touch.”
Within Liddiard’s first six weeks on the job in Frederick, she traveled to the United Way of Northeast Florida to draw inspiration from its 10-year-old Prosperity Center, which she says had a lot of community and local business support. She meets monthly with the Frederick County Financial Literacy Coalition to coordinate efforts and communicate goals to the community. “We want to create this resource that helps people out of poverty and into a stable place,” she says.
One of the tools for doing that, MyBudgetCoach—a program sponsored by Maryland Cash—matches trained coaches with people looking for help planning a budget, setting goals and cutting back expenses, she says.
Jay Mason, a United Way Of Frederick County board member and Charis Realty Group Realtor, has been volunteering as a MyBudgetCoach at the center for nearly a year, and has met with two families working to save money for a house. “I’m getting them to understand what it takes to put a financial plan together based on how much they’re making, and how much they can set aside,” Mason says.
Prosperity Savings Accounts, also known as individual development accounts, are part of a matched savings program that can be accessed by account holders who must take classes relevant to their savings goals and meet with a mentor, Liddiard says. Qualification for the account is based on household size and income and other related factors and applicants from some surrounding counties in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia are eligible, too. Computer classes are offered at the center regularly, and the schedules are posted online. “We provide free financial education. You can take a class before you buy a house—all for free,” she says.
Through the Prosperity Savings Accounts, the center matches $3 to $1 an account holder saves toward housing, education or small business development, and $1 to $1 toward a car, Liddiard says. “They could save up to $3,600 and get a check up to $14,000 through some of these programs.”
Rachael Davis, a 37-year-old Inwood, W.Va., single parent of two children, was one of the first applicants to get approved for a Prosperity Savings Account. She is saving for her daughter’s college education, and learned through her mentor how to set aside $100 a month by cutting back her cable bill and other expenses. At her savings rate, Davis—whose daughter is a high school freshman—will earn about $14,000 when her daughter graduates from high school to put toward college. “This is something I probably would have never done if not for this program,” says Davis, who works as a mortgage processor. “I was never really a saver. It’s a wonderful program—it’s a godsend.”
Liddiard says that working people like Davis are the people the center is trying to reach. “These programs are not for the destitute. There is a stigma that we have to overcome. Money has this awkwardly private element to it, but if all of us could learn about it, we could manage it so much better.”
Over the past five years, Otto and her two girls lived in temporary and Section 8 housing as Otto worked at a deli and earned an associate’s degree at Frederick Community College while getting a full-time job as a probation officer. Her daughters—ages 8 and 11—opted for paint and room décor for their birthday and Christmas presents in 2015 in anticipation of their new home, which they’ll buy thanks to help from the Prosperity Center and Interfaith Housing Alliance, Otto says.
She chose to do the six-month savings program, and was setting aside about $1,000 a month the first two months to help propel her to her $3,600 goal. “I’m saving a lot of money right now, temporarily, and even though I’m really poor right now, it’ll be worth it to get our new home,” she says, adding that she’s looking for houses in neighborhoods with good schools for her daughters.
Pedersen says, “Our overall message is that saving money is cool again, and it’s OK to not go into debt; if you are struggling, let’s see if we can save together and get you back on track.”