• Click here watch a trailer for the film “MAXED OUT."
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Teresa Hunter, director of a nonprofit financial literacy group, has spent almost her entire working life telling people the opposite of what American consumer culture tells them: Save money, defy your spending impulses, cultivate long-term habits.
“It is easy to tell someone how to become financially stable,” said Hunter, who has worked for the 45-year old Family Housing Advisory Services for 19 years. “But it is meaningless unless they can replicate it on their own.”
Hunter oversees one of Omaha's lowest-profile nonprofits but one with enormous private-sector support. FHAS aims to move people from public housing into their own homes and to teach people how to budget and build wealth, not just spend it.
The group's latest trend-bucking effort takes place Tuesday night at Film Streams: At 7 p.m., the group is hosting a free screening of “MAXED OUT,” a documentary about U.S. credit card debt.
Directed by James Scurlock, the film is subtitled “Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders.” It takes viewers on a journey deep inside the American style of debt, where things seem fine as long as the minimum monthly payment is made on time. After the screening will be a panel discussion with business professors and consumer advocates.
Reining in rampant credit card spending is part of the FHAS Financial Fitness program, a series of lessons that are often a prelude to home buyer education, which is a 16-hour course that's mandatory before FHAS refers someone to a low-income lender.
In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, FHAS helped 93 low-income people to buy homes and helped 23 others avoid foreclosure.
Through all of its financial, housing and tax-assistance programs, FHAS reaches almost 11,000 people a year.
The nonprofit's partners have included some of the area's largest banks — First National of Omaha, American National, Wells Fargo, Mutual of Omaha — but no one gets referred to a mortgage lender until after the 16 hours of course work, which covers the process and responsibilities of buying a home. And even that doesn't take place until after a yearslong effort to save money and improve one's credit record.
“The banks have a vested interest,” said Ed Kentch, director of community reinvestment compliance at First National and a board member at FHAS. “But FHAS is about education, and that is what is important in terms of people learning to take care of their assets.”
Hunter, the agency director, said FHAS encourages people to save, the foundation for all that follows.
One method is the Individual Development Account. Enrollees can save as little as $5 at a time; FHAS will match 200 percent of the savings, up to a predetermined maximum, in some cases. Young folks emerging from foster care can receiving matching contributions that can amass up to $8,000 toward the purchase of a car, she said.
Housing, though, has always been the group's focus. FHAS was started in 1968 — known then as the Urban League Housing Foundation — to improve opportunities for low-income families to buy homes in Omaha.
In 1971, its charter was amended to permit the group to buy and rehabilitate neglected homes, then sell or rent them. The group, with two offices in Omaha and one in Council Bluffs, has an annual budget of $2.5 million and 33 employees.
Among the lenders FHAS refers people to is Omaha 100. Another nonprofit, it operates a loan pool set up by area banks, who share the risk of mortgage lending to people with lower-than-average incomes and repayment histories.
It isn't all private-sector activity, said Dick Schenck, the Nebraska community development manager for Wells Fargo. He said the City of Omaha participates in most loans, typically contributing about 20 percent, money that's often used for down payments. The city becomes a secondary lien holder in such cases, Schenck said. It is a far better approach than public housing or permanent residency in government-subsidized apartments, he said.
“Few people in our population have 20 percent to put down,” Schenck said. “And while many of these people have spent years improving their credit scores, we still frequently ask that people return to FHAS and complete the Financial Fitness course.”
Erin Burnley, 27, of Omaha was an enthusiastic enrollee in the homebuyer education course. She completed it last year to qualify for an Omaha 100 loan to buy a townhouse in north Omaha, an area the city has designated for mortgage assistance in order to encourage stable new homeowners to take up residence. This month is the one-year anniversary of Burnley's transformation from renter into owner.
“What does what you buy really mean to you?” she said, summing up the financial education she got from FHAS. “Before, I was paying $700 a month for an 800-square-foot apartment. Now I have all this and am paying less. Shocking but true.”
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