In ‘underbanked’ Westside, program works to make residents more financially secure

A rendering of the new Quest Westside Impact Center.

Credit: Courtesy/Quest Communities

Credit: Courtesy/Quest Communities

A rendering of the new Quest Westside Impact Center.

For years, neighborhoods on Atlanta’s Westside have suffered from a lack of banks and financial resources, making the area is one of the most “underbanked” in the country, according to the credit reporting agency Equifax.

The shortage of financial institutions can hurt residents when it comes to buying a home, getting a credit card or starting a small business. A growing initiative launched by Equifax three years ago is intended to bring more financial assistance to Atlanta residents and improve the financial standing of some of the city’s most underserved communities.

In the next few weeks, the On The Rise Financial Center is set to open a new office and community space in a new building near the corner of Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.

“The Westside of Atlanta struggles in nearly every economic indicator right now,” said David Stiffler, president of the Equifax Foundation. Equifax started the center in partnership with Inclusiv, a national organization that helps low- and moderate-income people financially through credit unions.

The center focuses on the neighborhoods of English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill, but it plans to expand its reach in the future.

The median household income in Vine City in 2018 was about $30,000 — half the citywide median, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission. And almost 40% of residents in English Avenue live in poverty, nearly double the citywide poverty rate.

Stiffler said a lack of traditional banking resources in those areas can lead to economic instability for many residents, which then leads banks to not locate there. Some poorer residents become forced into a debt cycle to pay off basic necessities, which may include taking out payday loans with high interest rates.

The On The Rise center assists residents with one-on-one financial coaching, including preparation for buying a home or starting a new business. It also gives people access to local credit union products including banking services. The center is supported financially though Equifax, as well as Invest Atlanta and the Arthur M. Blank Foundation.

Since it was started three years ago, it has helped about 2,000 Westside residents, Equifax said. This year, nearly half of the people that sought help at the center decreased their total debt.

The services go further than general financial education, Stiffler said.

“The industry misconception is, ‘Hey, if we give individuals education... Bam! We’ve solved the problem.’ That’s not true,” he said. Everyone’s financial situation is different, so broad guidance that works for one person might not work for another, he said. “The reality is, much of the financial education that our country has produced is ineffective.”

The center is set to anchor a large new community hub in Vine City built by Quest Communities, called the Quest Westside Impact Center. The 30,000-square-foot facility will also include other social services like housing and workforce development.

“COVID’s going to leave behind amazing wreckage economically speaking, so the building of credit, and Equifax’s role in that through this center, has never been more important,” Stiffler said.