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It Takes a Village

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A Shared Initiative Inc. works with residents to rebuild the St. Claude corridor

openingThe ASI Federal Credit Union is a “low-income designated credit union,” which means that 60 percent of its 80,000 members live at or below the federal poverty line. In 2006, the credit union founded the nonprofit organization called A Shared Initiative Inc., or ASII, to increase homeownership and rebuild the Upper Ninth Ward. Last month, ASII opened a community center on the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Desire Street. ASII’s executive director, Sarah Taylor, spoke with New Orleans Living about the mission of the credit union and the goals of its new nonprofit organization.

 

Who started the ASI Federal Credit Union?

The working-class employees of the Avondale Shipyard. We’re talking about minorities and blue-collar people who probably couldn’t just walk into a bank downtown and get a loan. They all pooled their money together in 1961. They voted on the first person to receive a loan.

 

What is the credit union’s mission today?

Our primary mission is to serve people of modest means who may have been left behind by other financial institutions. Maybe they could make deposits at another institution, but they likely wouldn’t be able to get a loan. We work not only to get them loans but also to help them break free of the cycle of carrying a lot of debt.

 

How does owning a home empower someone?

It’s probably the primary means of asset accumulation for families in America today. For a lot of people, it represents their only source of equity. They can tap into that equity in a family medical emergency or to send a child to college.

 

Has the current financial crisis affected your work?hh2

We’re hearing a lot about the insulation of the local economy from the impact of the housing market, but we are starting to see it here. We have a lot of people who are beginning to feel the pressure of the economy. Instead of tightening up on our programming, we’re expanding.

 

How did the credit union’s mission change after Katrina?

People weren’t coming to us just for loans, they were coming for referrals to social service agencies. They wanted to know how they could get back into their homes.

 

Those new requests for help prompted you to start A Shared Initiative Inc.?

Yes, it was formed to expand the credit union’s anti-poverty programs. On the nonprofit side, we are here to help people become homeowners, if that’s their dream. We also offer a lot of other things, for example volunteer income tax assistance. This past year, we did over 200 tax returns for people of very modest means. We have an individual development account program, where if someone saves $500 for a down payment on a first home, we match that four-to-one with grant money. Just recently the credit union approved the transfer of a $6 million revolving loan fund to the nonprofit, so that we can make loans to disadvantaged small businesses, especially along the St. Claude corridor.

 

How will your new community center help revive the St. Claude corridor?

When we began connecting the dots, we saw that there were many things lacking from the community. There is still no library, for example. We hope that the community center will lead the way for other investors.

 

What services are available at the center?hh3

We’re already offering credit counseling, foreclosure prevention and homeownership counseling services. We have a volunteer income tax assistance program that’s up and running. And our revolving loan fund program will be available.

 

Community development is your goal. What does that mean in concrete terms?

I think a lot of community development post-Katrina is about restoring the community. The St. Claude community wasn’t the wealthiest, but the level of homeownership was very high. We want those families to feel like they can move back to a place with all the essential services that keep a community vibrant and together.

 

For more information about A Shared Initiative Inc., visit www.asharedinitiative.org.