Thought Leadership

Public Works at the 2017 MAS Summit

In October, we participated in the Municipal Art Society’s Annual Summit, focusing on ways stakeholder engagement can help communities participate in and prepare for large-scale, urban shifts. This year’s theme – Pushing the Limits – challenged attendees to consider solutions to the pressures felt as cities push the limits of physical and financial resources, from infrastructure to housing.

Celeste Frye moderated a panel, “New Tools for Equitable Engagement,” driving the discussion on how communities can meaningfully participate in debate and decisions that impact their neighborhoods. ​The conversation explored opportunities to modernize traditional outreach methods to address changing communication mediums, and if technology is the way to encourage more democratic city-building.

​ ​Panelists included Story Bellows, Chief Innovation and Performance Officer from the Brooklyn Public Library; Gabe Klein, Co-Founder at CityFI & Special Venture Partners at Fontinalis Partners; and Damon Rich, Partner of Hector.

​Check out the video below for the full panel discussion:

October 2017 Newsletter: Risks of Rent-to-Own Purchases | New CUF Report | What We’re Reading

This month found us conducting a secret-shopper survey and launching new trainings, plus participating on civic communication panels and bringing on new communications staff. We’re also very excited to see recent releases from our colleagues at the Center for an Urban Future and the HOPE program that drive innovative solutions to workforce training and growing job opportunities. Take a look at a few things on our plate, and our reading list.

We learned a few things about Rent-to-Own practices that might be useful for the communities you serve.

Did you know that purchasing household goods or appliances through a rent-to-own agreement might result in paying over twice the retail value of the product? We recently conducted a survey of the RTO industry in New York City – in which retailers allow consumers to pay off large purchases in recurring installments – to understand how rental agreements are structured and ways in which consumers can identify potential risks. Read our full blog post for more findings on RTO business practices and how you can raise awareness about these issues in your own work.

 

We supported the newest CUF Report, Making the Connection: Aligning Small Businesses and the Workforce Development System.

We were grateful for the opportunity to contribute to CUF’s latest report covering the importance of small businesses in workforce development. The piece lays out how the city’s thousands of established small businesses are arguably one of the city’s greatest opportunities for future job growth, yet do not have easy access to job trainings and placement programs. Many thanks to CUF for this thoughtful analysis and including some perspective from Celeste, “Most of the jobs in New York City are in small businesses. We are leaving a lot of jobs on the table.” Recommendations are made on how to align small businesses with the city’s workforce development system. Read more here.

 Congratulations to the HOPE Program on receiving a Criminal Justice Investment Initiative grant to build its social enterprise.

The HOPE Program received $1.9 million in funding for its Intervine program, which provides participants skills training and job opportunities in the green sector. This will undoubtedly increase job opportunities for at-risk youth and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers. We look forward to supporting them in designing and implementing this new initiative through project planning and performance management.

Please join us in welcoming our new Marketing and Communications Coordinator.

We’re excited to have Jiwon Kim on board supporting our content and outreach efforts. Jiwon is currently pursuing a graduate degree at NYU Wagner’s School of Public Service, focusing on public and nonprofit management. She brings significant experience in programs and communications strategy, not to mention that she’s a beat-writer on innovation and tech in her spare time. We know that her passion for social issues and cross-sector collaboration will advance our work in-house and in building new partnerships.

It was also a great month of events and engaging around strategies to address complex civic issues.

During the Municipal Art Society 2017 summit, Principal Celeste Frye moderated a panel – “New Tools for Equitable Engagement” – on opportunities to improve traditional outreach and engagement methods so community-members can actively participate in decisions that shape their neighborhoods. The discussion covered the potential of new technology to drive democratic practices and included insights from panelists Story Bellows, Chief Innovation and Performance Officer from the Brooklyn Public Library; Gabe Klein, Co-Founder at CityFI & Special Venture Partners at Fontinalis Partners; and Damon Rich, Partner of Hector.

Director Allison Quigney participated in a panel at NYU Wagner to discuss how management can be used to improve public policy. NYU Wagner’s Management and Leadership Organization invited professionals to discuss their experiences on how they leverage management skills and tools to shape public policy. The diverse group of panelists shared their unique stories and shared their insights on how coursework in management can help public service leaders create effective change in every policy area.

What We’re Reading:

Sam Facas: A Brookings piece on the vital importance of a fully-funded 2020 Census to ensure our communities are properly studied and counted.

 

 

Favio German: A report exploring racial disparities in nonprofit leadership and opportunities to address this gap.

 

 

Julia Deutsch: This NYT piece outlining the current federal debate on how to expand apprenticeship programming.

 

 

Growing Conscious Consumerism: Understanding the Rent-to-Own Industry in NYC

For our workforce development colleagues: you know the importance of financial education and empowerment in positioning your participants to maintain jobs and build sustainable employment. However, protecting the communities you work with from predatory financing and lending practices that put them at long-term risk can be a challenge. One piece of the solution is understanding where financial risks lie. We recently conducted a survey of practices in the Rent-to-Own (RTO) industry in New York City to understand how RTO stores conduct business and help explore ways in which consumers can identify risks within these types of agreements. Our research – including interviewing subject matter experts, conducting outreach to consumers, and doing our own secret shopping – taught us a lot about this sometimes illusive industry. We wanted to relay a few of our learnings in the interest of raising awareness around these issues and informing how RTO might impact your clients or program participants.

First, how it works: RTO is a service directed to consumers who immediately need specific products such as appliances or household furniture, but may not have the funds on hand to make a purchase outright. An RTO retailer will rent those products to consumers through a modest upfront payment, followed by recurring installments for an agreed to period of time until the product is paid off. Unfortunately, many who enter these rental agreements can end up paying more than 2.5 times the purchase price of a product through the structure of monthly payments and interest over their rental term. For example, during our secret shopping we found that a television marked $699.99 at Best Buy might be $1,049.99 in total fees at an RTO establishment. Simply put, that’s a bad deal.

Second, things to look out for:

  • In NYC, RTO chains are consolidated in neighborhoods with above average poverty rates, including areas in the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. By mapping Aaron’s and Rent-a-Center locations in NYC, two of the nation’s largest RTO retailers, we found that they are predominantly situated in or near areas with more than 20% of households in poverty.
  • Our research suggested that RTO salespeople frequently focus their pitch on the product, and are often vague or unclear about the rental payment terms. They often do not share written terms until after you’ve agreed to purchase an item. Consumers also noted difficulty in getting RTO salespeople to provide clear and informative responses to their questions.
  • Even when rental terms are provided, consumers expressed confusion on how to assess those terms and admitted they didn’t understand what they were getting into – or the ultimate costs – before committing to the purchase.
  • Consumers noted the negative effects of missing just one rental payment. RTO retailers reportedly hire collection agencies to collect missed payments, using employer information and personal references to track down consumers.

Raising awareness around RTO and these practices is a critical next step in helping protect consumers. It may sound straightforward, but encouraging consumers to request and thoroughly review payment terms before signing any rental agreement is likely to go a long way in helping them to protect themselves. While our survey represents initial consumer engagement, further research and outreach would help surface nuances to the experience and challenges faced by consumers in NYC, which in turn will help inform actionable solutions. We encourage you to raise awareness around RTO within your organizations and keep an eye out for when your participants may have fallen victim to unfavorable rental terms.

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