Consumer credit exec expands network of help

It’s rare when journalists get the chance to call on the same source of information over two decades.

Suzanne Boas

Suzanne Boas

But I’ve been lucky enough to be able to interview Suzanne Boas, on and off, during the 19 years she’s headed CredAbility, the new name for what was the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.

I started talking with Boas during the fallout from the 1990-91 recession (it was nothing like this Great Recession), when I covered personal finance for the AJC. Unfortunately, our interviews will end in June, now that she’s announced her retirement.

Boas, 64, succeeded in turning the nonprofit agency into a critical option for consumers searching for help with their debt problems. She built it from a local organization of 35 employees to a national one of more than 550. Last year, it served about 633,000 consumers nationwide.

During her tenure as president, credit problems exploded beyond low-income and minority consumers to a much broader swath of the population, she said in a recent interview.

“We’re seeing a higher income client coming to us for help,” Boas said. “It’s a solidly middle-class, older clientele.”

There have been considerable changes in just the past four years. For example, the average age of those seeking help to avoid foreclosure in 2006 was 43. Now it’s 48. The average annual income went from $40,534 to $50,524. Average net worth, meanwhile, dropped from a positive $19,585 to a negative $71,690.

Also, African-Americans, who comprised 46.7 percent of the foreclosure prevention clients in 2006, represent less than half that now — 20.7 percent. Meanwhile, the share of white clients has risen from 43 percent to 46.6 percent. Hispanics seeking help skyrocketed to 25.5 percent, from 6.4 percent four years ago.

Unfortunately, foreclosure issues are not going away anytime soon.

“The problems in the housing market are still very much with us until unemployment is reduced,” Boas said. “Seventy percent of the people last year who came to us for foreclosure prevention had some income disruption. … It’s a problem with a long tail.”

Boas said she is frustrated by the unscrupulous practices that prey on consumers. Let’s not forget that the financial crisis started with sub-prime mortgage lenders hawking garbage loans. (My words, not hers.)

“We play in the space that has a lot of disreputable people in it,” she said.

Some of those people are in her own business. She said they pretend to help consumers, as they get them deeper into debt.

“We have seen horror stories,” Boas said. “They take money upfront and don’t deliver on the back side.” Consumers can end up worse off than if they had done nothing.

One reason her organization changed names, Boas said, is that some of these outfits had used similar monikers to her organization’s former Consumer Credit Counseling.

While dealing with the fallout from the current crisis, she cited one positive development — Americans are saving more.

“It’s long overdue,” Boas said. “There’s a very large segment not prepared for retirement.”

She is.

“This was a perfect job for me,” Boas said. “I’m personally very frugal.”

- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat

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February 15th, 2011
10:10 am

Like she said, the problem is with us. Do any of us have any integrity besides her? We’re a national disgrace!