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Those involved with the community programming shared their stories with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on Monday.

Greylock Shows Neal Results of Grant for Underserved Clients

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Neal met with board members and senior leadership on Monday.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In October, a man walked into Greylock Federal Credit Union with little cash in his account and little credit.

He also didn't have heat.

He hadn't paid his gas bill for some time and the utility company shut it off. He didn't have enough credit to get a loan elsewhere to catch up and the winter was coming. 
Vice President of Community Development Cindy Shogry-Raimer got him the loan he needed at lower interest rate than if he put it on a credit card.
And she got him into a budget program. She set him up with a financial coach to help develop a spending plan moving forward. And now, he not only has a warm home, but also a stronger financial footing than ever before.
Another woman had lived in the same apartment for 10 years when her daughter got pregnant. She had a similar track record with cash and credit, so money was tight. Her daughter planned to move in.
"When she mentioned to her landlord that her pregnant daughter was moving in, she suddenly got an eviction notice. That's not a surprise. It does happen. But when you are not prepared for that and you are shelling out all of this money to help your grandchild, she needed money to get into a brand new apartment and get a tank of oil," Shogry-Raimer said.
Again, Greylock worked with her to get on a better financial footing. Another woman had only been on a job for six months when her grandmother died in Florida. There was no way she could get there without a loan, but no other institution would take a chance on her. Greylock got her a short-term loan to go to the funeral.
"It just pulled all of the stress off of her. She was able to get closure. We were able to help her when nobody else would actually take a chance on her," Shogry-Raimer said.
Community Development Specialist Gloria Escobar worked with a man who was paying 20 percent on debt through a credit card and got him into a lower interest loan and back on the right track, saving the customer $8,400. She also had a woman who didn't speak English and she stepped in to work with the collection agency to halt that, and then worked with the woman to connect her with a financial coach. 
"She wasn't able to talk with the collection department because of a language barrier. I got them to stop the repossession, waive the fees, and she was able to keep her car to get to work," Escobar said.
These are stories Greylock leaders told U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on Monday. And those stories wouldn't be possible without a $686,000 grant Neal was able to secure for the credit union. 
That grant is responsible for the creation of the community-based programming at Greylock, which is comprised of safety net loans, loans for vehicles, and small business loans. It also includes financial wellness coaching, teaching financial literacy in schools, and helping connect the underserved population with other health and human service agencies.
"Our average household income is less than $50,000. One in five families that have children under the age of 5 are living in poverty. And 43 percent of consumers in Massachusetts have subprime credit," Chief Lending Officer Jodi Rathbun-Briggs said. 
"That is substantial. If you put that with somebody who is making $50,000 a year and they already have credit trouble, what happens is when they have an emergency and they are seeking a loan, many times they don't have the ability to. Also, they don't have the ability to pay the high rates they would need to be approved for this loan."
Rathbun-Briggs said 90 percent of the Berkshire population depends on private transportation. The new roads program is aimed to help people avoid predatory lenders when buying vehicles. 
"It is not only giving them access to the car, we're giving them access to the car at an affordable rate," Rathbun-Briggs said.
The program has ultimately created $8 million worth of loans, she said. It also has a built-in component where someone with poor credit can have their interest rate on those loans decrease over time if the monthly bills are all paid on time.
And it helps employers who have been reporting that sometime transportation is what keeps them from retaining some of their best employees.
"Those employers have told us that they have trouble retaining their employees. People are struggling with financial insecurity, it is troublesome for them to keep coming to work, stay focused, and not be distracted. Since they have to rely on their own transportation to get back and forth, if something happens to their car, all of a sudden they aren't at work and there is a high absentee rate," Rathbun-Briggs said.
She said the institution was able to lend out some $750,000 in safety net loans. She said that can be at rates of 7.99 percent for people who may otherwise be borrowing on a credit card upward of 20 percent. 
"We have all heard that Americans have trouble coming up with more than $400 for an emergency. If you have a 550 credit score, your options are very limited to help do that. That is where a number of consumers turn to pay day lenders who often charge exorbitant rates," Rathbun-Briggs said.
That program, too, is coupled with lining the customer up with a financial coach to work on bettering their credit score and developing a solid spending plan.
"It is not just giving people the money that they need. It is helping them make better decisions," Rathbun-Briggs said.
And lastly, the credit union will loan out to start up small businesses. Rathbun-Briggs said that program is intended to help somebody start up a new business.
For Neal, the financial literacy piece is the most important piece of the grant. He said there has been a shift in behaviors in personal spending over the years, driven by an outburst of lending that ultimately led to the financial recession a decade ago. 
"There was all this money being pushed out the door and the idea was at the end of each month or each quarter fill some standard of how many loans you got out. And then everybody feigned surprise when the loans weren't being paid back," Neal said.
More and more, Neal says more and people are not equipped with the right knowledge and are finding themselves with significant credit card debt. With high interest rates on those cards, he said many are just "digging the hole deeper."
"I would be happy to help [Greylock] again," Neal said.
"For the individual who has a poor credit score and is paying 21 or 22 percent on a credit card, when the car breaks down there isn't a lot of room in the budget. When the babysitter cancels, there isn't a lot of room. With a national minimum wage rate at $7.25, that means you work a day in some places to fill the gas tank. You don't have a lot of room for error so I think what they are doing is well noted."
Neal hopes to expand financial literacy classes to the younger ages.
Rathbun-Briggs said the organization was able to get into the classrooms and teach such things as building credit and budgeting because of the grant. She said 5,700 students were given lessons in personal finance through the grant.
Neal added that understanding and being involved with the banking industry is even more important moving forward as more and more people are becoming fully responsible for their retirements.
"You are going to be in charge of your own retirement. There is not going to be the benefit of the private sector," Neal said.
Greylock CEO John Bissell said he appreciates the support from Neal because without that grant, he doesn't believe the organization would have the confidence to make these types of loans available to those who need it.

Tags: federal grants,   Greylock Federal,   Neal,   

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Tyer: City Preparing for Phase 2 Openings

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Mayor Linda Tyer said Friday that with the beginning of Phase 2 likely to start Monday, the city is focused on reopening. 
"The public health data continues to trend in the right direction and that is the result of everybody doing their part to keep themselves and others safe," the mayor said during her weekly COVID-19 update on Pittsfield Community Television.
The city has seen 160 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths; the number of active cases is now 31. Berkshire Medical Center currently has five patients.
Tyer said the city is doing its part to prepare businesses that will be allowed to open in this next phase with limitations and specifications. She said hotels, retail stores, various schools, some personnel services, funeral homes, child care, and restaurants among others will be able to open to different degrees.
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