How Neighborhoods Help New Yorkers Get Ahead: Findings From the Collaborative for Neighborhood Financial Health

In 2016, the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE), in partnership with New Economy Project and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, launched the Collaborative for Neighborhood Financial Health (CNFH). A first-of-its-kind initiative, the project’s objectives were to understand how neighborhood resources, actors and institutions influence – and can be harnessed to support – residents’ financial health and stability.

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Over the course of more than a year, New Economy Project worked with OFE and team partners to carry out a highly participatory, neighborhood-led inquiry into community financial health. The project engaged hundreds of neighborhood residents and stakeholders in interviews, focus groups, and interactive community workshops – eliciting rich feedback about neighborhood conditions and how residents perceive them as supporting or hindering financial health. This community input, along with a literature review and other research methods, directly informed the creation of a comprehensive set of neighborhood financial health indicators, as well as the implementation of place-based intervention aimed at improving one or more measures of neighborhood financial health.

In East Harlem, New Economy Project and Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union (LESPFCU) implemented a three-month hybrid intervention involving a “pop-up” credit union branch and a “promotoras” peer education campaign. The intervention sought to improve community members’ utilization of banks/credit unions – a key indicator of neighborhood financial health – and their understanding of individuals’ banking rights and options overall. We designed the intervention in close consultation with Spanish-speaking immigrant community members, who face particular barriers to achieving financial health and basic financial services access.

Key Findings

  • Neighborhoods influence financial outcomes of their residents.  Neighborhood institutions, actors, markets, informal systems, supportive services, and other conditions affect residents’ financial health and opportunities in myriad ways, as described in this paper.
  • Presence of supportive services in a neighborhood does not translate to access. For example, the existence of a bank branch in a community does not advance financial health if the bank imposes identification or minimum balance requirements that are prohibitive to most residents.
  • Notwithstanding acute financial distress in many NYC communities, residents also find ways to support each other’s needs, navigate systems, and organize for improved neighborhood conditions. Low income people living in high-cost neighborhoods, by definition, demonstrate significant financial resilience.
  • Stable and affordable housing is fundamental to financial health – and indeed to people’s ability to live in their desired neighborhood. Housing insecurity is a major impediment to financial health. High rents make it difficult for low income families to save or plan for the future. Longtime residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods fear that rising rents, along with tenant harassment and other pressures, will displace them from their neighborhoods and the community supports on which they rely.
  • Resident engagement and community partnerships are vital. Residents are the “experts” of their own communities. The Collaborative continually elicited residents’ input as it developed and “tested” neighborhood financial health indicators, as well as pilot place-based interventions.
  • Neighborhood financial health is affected by broader economic conditions. Many of the barriers to financial health identified in the research are not endemic to the two neighborhood subareas, but are manifestations at the neighborhood level of systemic issues and inequality that are beyond the scope of neighborhood actors and interventions.

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