Emergencies don’t have to be financial disasters; start saving now!

You’re laid off at work. Your car needs a new transmission. Your furnace blows. These are all costly emergencies that can’t usually be anticipated and cannot be avoided once they occur. Without a fund set aside just for such emergencies, they can trigger even greater disasters.

Last year, NeighborWorks America released the findings of its third annual consumer finance survey. Chief among them is the alarming fact that nearly a third of adult Americans (29 percent) have no emergency savings. Ninety-one percent of those with incomes of $100,000 reported holding emergency savings, compared to just 30 percent of who earn less than $20,000, 63 percent of those with incomes below $40,000 and 78 percent of those with incomes between $40,000 -$50,000.

There also were significant differences by race and education. The highest percentages of households without any emergency savings at all were reported by African-Americans, adults with lower incomes, and among those with a high school education or less.

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A good rule of thumb is to have enough funds set aside to cover three to six months (some say four to seven) of living expenses. This will give you enough time, for instance, to find a new job or supplement your unemployment benefits until you do. However, anything in the bank is better than nothing — and $500 will get you out of many scrapes that would otherwise put you in the hole. In other words, start small if you have to, but start.

Here are a few tips:

  • Set up a savings account just for this purpose. Separate it from the accounts you tap into on a regular basis so you’re not tempted to dip into your reserves. Do not get access to it via debit card. And if you are issued a checkbook, hide it.
  • Arrange the automatic deposit of a portion of your paycheck into that savings account. Most employers allow direct deposits into multiple accounts. This is the most painless way to create a regular savings habit; you won’t even notice it! But make sure you’ve created a realistic budget. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling money out of savings regularly to pay bills, defeating the purpose.
  • Keep the change.When you get $1 and $5 bills after breaking a $20, drop some in a jar at home. When the jar fills up, move it into your savings account. And if you have money left after paying your bills at the end of a pay period, move some into your emergency fund.
  • Save your tax refund. The average refund is in the thousands, which can give a good boost to your emergency savings. When you file your taxes, consider having your refund directly deposited into your emergency account. Alternatively, adjust your W-4 tax form so that you have less money withheld, and direct the extra into your emergency fund.
  • Cut back on costs.If you’re still falling short on saving, track your spending for a month to find discretionary expenses you don’t really need. Meals out, stops at coffee shops, drinks with friends all add up fast, but you may not realize how much you’re spending in total until you’ve put it on paper.

Remember: Expenses you should be able to anticipate, such as holiday gifts and annual auto insurance payments, are not emergencies! One of the most common problems people have with emergency funds is forgetting to plan for one-time expenses each year.

St. Ambrose is a member of the NeighborWorks America network of nonprofit housing and community-development organizations and we have staff that are trained and certified to offer financial education and coaching to help you follow these guidelines. Our financial coaches can help you realize your goals, encourage you along the way, and hold you accountable on your journey. Emergencies are upsetting enough. Don’t allow them to turn into financial catastrophes as well. If you’re interested in meeting with a financial coach, call us at 410-366-8550 ext. 235 or check our webpage: https://www.stambros.org/pages/financial-coaching.html

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Leslie and Rosalyn, proud graduates of our “Invest in Your Future” workshop series
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Baltimore Sun article leads to an unexpected outcome for a St. Ambrose client

A story published in the Baltimore Sun last week highlights the struggles and stress that plagues Baltimore City Homeowners who try to contest atypical water bills through the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. St. Ambrose attorneys are working with the DPW and with Baltimore residents to provide guidance in navigating the process of challenging water bills. Since October, however, the appeals process that had been in place to contest water bills has been dismantled and residents’only option is to fill out a complaint form.

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left to right: staff attorney Charlotte Clarke, St. Ambrose client Evelyn Anderson, staff attorney Christina Ochoa.  Baltimore Sun Video by Amy Davis.

The decision to eliminate the appeals process was not announced and poses a major threat to the housing security of many Baltimore City Homeowners who no longer have an opportunity to openly discuss erroneous bills. Our legal department works with clients every day who receive inexplicable water bills that range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (Don’t believe us?). The elimination of the appeals process creates an especially grave situation as the tax sale deadline approaches and homeowners with unpaid water bills, even grossly inaccurate ones, run the risk of their home going into tax sale foreclosure.

Though city processes have a long way to go to become more equitable for residents, in the short term, much needed relief came for our client Ms. Anderson who was featured in the Baltimore Sun article and was facing a $1,300 water bill. An anonymous donor contacted St. Ambrose to arrange to pay the bill. In fact, eight people reached out to the agency to inquire about contributing to the bill and providing support for other clients who face the risk of losing their home due to water bills.

Staff attorney Christina Ochoa comments on the outpouring of support from the community, “in an industry where we’re so often the bearers of bad news, seeing people’s generosity was really uplifting.”

UPDATE: The Baltimore Sun published a follow up story here: Good Samaritans Step Up

Community Development Network Day in Annapolis

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is a member of Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN). CDN is a group that represents the interests of housing and community development organizations across the state. Although Maryland communities are diverse in so many ways, CDN unites community organizations on our shared goal of making our communities great places where people can thrive and have access to opportunities. The network gathered in Annapolis to meet with legislators and discuss some of the pending legislation this session that could improve and strengthen our communities.

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left to right: Director of Housing Counseling, Cara Stretch; Staff Attorney Christina Ochoa; Special Assistant to the Executive Director/Compliance Officer, Phillip Westry

We heard from law makers and had the opportunity to connect and share our on-the-ground experiences as community development professionals. By providing testimony and education about how Maryland laws impact our clients, we can be confident that our legislators have an educated perspective to make decisions that will strengthen communities and people. Below are a few of the highlights from our state legislators and leaders:

sam_0261House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh discussed the necessity of housing and addressing poverty if we are to expect strong education outcomes. Delegate McIntosh also emphasized the importance of passing the HOME act during this session to end discrimination in housing based on source of income only.

SAM_0254.JPGHouse Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar Barve commented that we can’t expect health outcomes or education outcomes to be achieved until we have a safe secure place to live. Many of the bills that impact the community development field are introduced in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

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Land Use and Ethics Sub Committee Chair Steve Lafferty reiterated the importance of the work of housing counselors in Maryland for not only foreclosure prevention, but also to prepare Maryland families for the future through homeownership counseling and financial literacy.

SAM_0270.JPGMaryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt emphasized the bright future ahead for communities across the state and discussed initiatives to reach the state’s goal of eliminating homelessness.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Maryland government and the general assembly, check out Maryland Manual Online .

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Community Development Network check out their website here. 

 

Homesharing gets Published!

Our Homesharing program is featured nationally in NeighborWorks America’s new book, “NeighborWorks Works: Practical Solutions from America’s Community Development Network.”NeighborWorks Works is a collaboration book that showcases the NeighborWorks network’s innovative solutions in affordable housing and community development.

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Homesharing, which began matching homeowners with tenants  in Baltimore City in 1988, is recognized in the book as a unique and impactful solution to the challenge of creating affordable housing. Through a new program expansion, “Parent-Child Homesharing,” supported by the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, Homesharing is now growing into a housing solution for families too!

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St. Ambrose is featured alongside 2 other Baltimore organizations and countless more from across the U.S. Each page tells the unique story of an innovative solution that is helping to strengthen and empower our communities.  The book illustrates the incredible and far reaching impact that community development has on the communities where we live and grow.

With a donation of $25 or more to the Homesharing program, we will send you a copy of the NeighborWorks Book, complimentary! On the donation page there is a question where you can indicate that you would like a copy of the NeighborWorks Book.

Go ahead- Donate now.

Amazon’s Alexa comes to Aigburth-Vale

St. Ambrose is participating in a project through the AARP foundation to address isolation among older adults in our senior housing community, Aigburth-Vale mansion, in Towson, MD.  Residents who volunteer to participate in the program are given the Amazon Echo, a voice controlled speaker, to use at home, and the AARP Foundation will track volunteers’ usage patterns.

51xen2uyoyl-_sl1000_According to Amzon’s website, “Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”

After a successful initial prototype trial at Aigburth and 3 other senior communities this summer, the project will be expanded in early 2017 to reach seniors all over the country including a larger group of residents at Aigburth-Vale. The goal is to find and advance an innovative solution to reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults.

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Al from AARP speaks to Aigburth residents about the risks of isolation and the Echo project.

Al Browne, who is leading the program at the AARP foundation, made a presentation last week for interested residents to learn more about the project and how to participate. Al explained that participants’ engagement patterns will be tracked in an attempt to show three things: people over the age of 50 will want the echo and will use it, ‘skills’ (apps for the Echo) can be created to improve the health of older adults, and investors will be interested in helping to make the echo more affordable for seniors.

Al told the group that for the 12 million older adults living alone in the United States they “gradually disconnect from friends and family.” According to AARP’s website, social isolation is “the result of multiple causes, including poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss and retirement.” Research also shows that “the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” The AARP foundation is looking for an easy to use technology that could have a positive impact on quality of life of seniors living alone.

The echo was an obvious choice for a number of reasons. The voice assistive technology is simple to use and ideal for an older adult whose sight or motor skills may be deteriorating. The echo provides news and information, and can play music and audio books, all of which help to keep users more connected to the world. But Al comments, sometimes it’s less about the information received, and more just that the technology “feels more human.” You can also ask Alexa to tell you a joke or even give you advice. Users have reported feeling empowered by being able to share the technology with their families and friends.

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Edwena, an Aigburth resident and Echo user.

Edwena, an Aigburth resident volunteered at the meeting, “I took it on vacation and everyone loved it! It brought everyone together, from the little one’s on up and afterwards they said, ‘make sure to bring it next time’”

Al has heard this from participants from other communities too. A man from Miami took Alexa on a cruise and commented that he “felt like a rockstar.”

Al is working with experts in gerontology from across the country  in an effort to enhance the product to better address the needs of older adults. In addition to the device’s basic functions, Alexa has the ability to learn “skills” which are like apps that can be installed for the echo. Al’s goal is to identify and develop skills that would promote positive health outcomes for seniors.

Residents at Aigburth had the opportunity to make suggestions for how to make the product most valuable for them. The most common suggestion: “Could Alexa call a family member or an emergency number in the event of a fall?” Though not one of Alexa’s current ‘skills,’ Al has been advocating for this capability. Everyone at Aigburth agreed, emergency assistance would be a major selling point for older adults and their families.

“Can I dictate a story about my childhood to Alexa?” one resident wondered. Al was enthusiastic about the idea that Alexa could help seniors to journal or record oral histories.

And, “What if Alexa could provide reminders about when to take what medications and when to have meals,” a resident’s caretaker questioned.

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Joyce, a resident’s caretaker at Aigburth offer suggestions for how to move the Echo forward.

Input from Aigburth’s users and from senior users throughout the country will help to guide leaders in pushing for improvements to the voice assistive technology that can be catered specifically for the needs of seniors.

Leslie, an Aigburth resident and early participant in the Echo project commented said she uses her echo in this way: “In the morning when I get up, I probably ask for the weather so I know what to wear. I make my shopping list, and if I take a nap, I ask it to wake me up.” Though Leslie commented that she just used Alexa for menial things, it’s easy to see how Alexa is able to offer a little extra help for daily activities.

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Leslie (left) and Nancy (right) are both Echo users

Many residents were excited about the prospect of the program continuing, and the current echo users at Aigburth have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get on board with the expanded project.  Nancy is probably Alexa’s biggest advocate at Aigburth-Vale. Though Nancy is very active and engaged in her community, she acknowledges that there is a great need among her peers for the kind of social diversion that Alexa offers.

Requirements to participate in the program include having a smart phone and access to WiFi. Both of these things proved to be an obstacle for participants to sign up this summer, but St. Ambrose staff made it a priority to enhance the building’s WiFi and now, each room at the mansion has a strong wireless internet connection. There is a growing list of Aigburth residents who are looking forward to participating in the program. Residents who participate will receive a free Amazon Echo from the AARP foundation that they will get to keep even after the project ends. Volunteers will complete a survey before the program starts, and then they are just asked one simple request: use it!

Get involved this #GivingTuesday

We’re lighting up N. Charles Street to Celebrate  #GivingTuesday – and we need your help!

We’ve joined #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide.

Occurring this year on November 29, #GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday to kick-off the holiday giving season and inspire people to collaborate in improving their local communities.

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The centerpiece of St. Ambrose’s #GivingTuesday celebration is a display on Baltimore’s giant LED Board located at 1700 N. Charles Street. The LED Board, which is the largest on the East Coast between New York City and Atlanta, will track progress towards our giving goal from 6-8pm on #GivingTuesday and will be updated to recognize donors who have given to the campaign.

3 ways YOU can support St. Ambrose this #GivingTuesday

  1. Donate through qtego.net/home or text HOME to 74121 to give. All donations made this month will count towards our goal- so there’s no need to wait to give!
  2. Join our Giving Event at UB’s Angelos Law Center on Giving Tuesday! Tickets are $25 and include hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine, and stunning city views. Plus you can be part of the celebration as we climb towards our #GivingTuesday goal!
  3. Share your love for St. Ambrose with one, or all of your friends! You can make a difference by telling a story about what St. Ambrose means to you or help us make new friends by sharing our posts on Facebook and Twitter.

We’ll update this post regularly as we get closer to the big day! Thanks for your support and feel free to get in touch with any questions.

Homeowner Spotlight: David Blenman

David Blenman, a paramedic firefighter in Baltimore County, purchased a St. Ambrose home in the Glenham-Belford neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore at the end of last year. We stopped by his home this week to see how he was settling in and making the house his home.

Blenman got connected to St. Ambrose through his realtor, and after touring several Cape Cod homes he was surprised to find that the Glenham-Belford home was such a perfect fit.What attracted Mr. Blenman to his home was the size and the openness. The yard was an added benefit, which is spacious but manageable.

The open layout is actually one of the home’s new features. When St. Ambrose Housing Development acquired the home in 2015 we removed a wall to enlarge the kitchen and incorporate it more fluidly into the living space. St. Ambrose also added new flooring, cabinets, counter tops, light fixtures, and appliances.

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For Blenman, the homebuying  process was straightforward and really exciting. Blenman completed his homebuyer education course through Harbell and was diligent about completeing all the necessary paperwork in a timely way.  As a first time homebuyer, Blenman qualified for the Grand Slam Program through the city as well as closing cost assistance from the National Fair Housing Alliance, which is made available through St. Ambrose. Everything really fell into place for Blenman, and he was actually able to close on his home two days ahead of schedule.

It was an exciting time when he sat down to do the math on what he could afford when it came to buying a home. Not only is his monthly payment just as manageable as a rent payment, “it’s mine,” Blenman commented significantly.

And he really has made the home his own. The house is fully furnished and impeccably cared for, complete with a rec room in the basement and a master bedroom suite upstairs, features that add comfort and privacy to this compact home.

As Mr. Blenman points out, between the yard and the living area, it would be easy to host a family function without feeling too crowded, but the home is also a comfortable size for himself and his 14 year old son who lives with him part time. It was also essential that his daughter, who is stationed in Seattle with the Navy, has someplace to come home to.

St. Ambrose homes are offered first to teachers, firefighters, policemen, and emergency personnel as part of HUD’s “Good Neighbor Next Door Program.” The Good Neighbor program encourages our community’s public servants to support neighborhood revitalization by becoming homeowners.  When asked what Blenman is most proud of in his 6 year career with the fire department, he said “just being capable of doing the job.” He admits it’s not for everyone and that it takes heart to go into the fire.

Blenman certainly lives up to the “Good Neighbor” name, before buying his home he had rented an apartment in an older gentleman’s home on the west side of town. Blenman was both a tenant and keeper, taking care of some maintenance items around the house and checking in with his landlord periodically to ensure all was well.

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On buying his own home, Blenman admits humbly, “sometimes I come home and I’m still in disbelief that I’m a homeowner.”