Changing Gears: How reliable, affordable cars help people work their way out of poverty

'It's an opportunity for empowerment'

CINCINNATI -- Ann Boland was just getting her life back on track with a promising job in a brand new industry, but there was one big thing holding her back.

She didn’t have a car.

“There was a period of time that I had to take a bus from Madisonville to Columbia Tusculum, which is four or five miles at most,” she said. “It took over an hour and a transfer to travel four miles.”

Fortunately she found Changing Gears, a nonprofit that provides affordable, reliable vehicles for people who are working their way out of poverty. Changing Gears likens itself to Habitat for Humanity, but with cars. The organization takes in donated cars, restores them and then sells them at a reduced cost to people working their way out of poverty. 

Ann Boland (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

The nonprofit required Boland to take classes to learn how to budget for the expenses of owning a car and to volunteer in the organization’s West End garage. She learned how to change her car’s oil and replace the headlights, along with other basic repairs.

“It’s changed my life in many ways,” said Boland, who’s 65. “It’s given me a much brighter future.”

Changing Gears has done that for 88 people since it launched in 2013, said Joel Bokelman, the organization’s president and founder.

But as wonderful as that is, Bokelman said he knows there are thousands more low-income people in Greater Cincinnati who could work themselves out of poverty far more easily if they had affordable, reliable vehicles.

That’s why experts across the country have been advocating for changes in state and federal policies regarding how cars are sold, especially used cars. 

Joel Bokelman (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

“The reality is that people need cars,” said Margy Waller, a Cincinnati-based consultant who has researched and written extensively about what car ownership means to low-income people.

Improved and expanded bus service certainly helps people living in poverty, she said. But in Greater Cincinnati and most other parts of the country, public transit can’t come close to matching the efficiency of having a reliable car.

“They’re not going to succeed and be able to contribute fully to our economy and our democracy using transit that is insufficient in nearly every place in the nation,” Waller said.

Making big money selling to poor people

Cars can be so life-changing that often low-income people buy them as soon as they can scrape together enough money and end up getting vehicles that are in bad shape at dealerships that take advantage of their desperation, she said.

The worst offenders often are dealerships known as “buy here, pay here” car lots, Waller said. Such dealerships sell used cars, often that are in bad shape, and finance the sales with interest rates that are typically very high.

Those dealers also usually install devices on the cars that can interfere with the cars’ ignition systems if the buyers miss a car payment. The systems then trigger a GPS so that the dealerships can send people to repossess the cars right away.

The National Consumer Law Center refers to the technology as “electronic repossession devices,” said John Van Alst, an attorney with the center who also is director of its Working Cars for Working Families Project.

Sadly, though, consumers can’t protect themselves simply by staying away from “buy here, pay here” lots, Van Alst said.

“We see these abuses at franchise dealerships, too. Most new car dealerships make more money on their selling of used cars than new cars,” he said, in part because the prices of new cars are widely available whereas the prices of used cars can vary widely, depending on the cars’ condition. 

The Changing Gears garage is in West End. (Lucy May | WCPO)

“And they make more money on selling to people with lower incomes than people with higher incomes,” he said. 

Most states give dealers wide discretion when it comes to financing terms on car sales, he said. And while consumers might think that dealers are shopping around to find the best interest rates for the customers, they’re usually shopping around to find the interest rate that will be most profitable for the dealers, Van Alst said.

“There are literally dozens if not hundreds of scenarios in which the consumers get horribly taken advantage of and horribly abused,” he said.

‘Transparency and consistency’

There are plenty of people in a position to change the way car sales are regulated at the state and federal levels, Van Alst said, including state and federal lawmakers, state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission.

But the auto industry is powerful and resists changes that could cost dealerships money, he said.

Some states do have more consumer-friendly laws than others, Van Alst said, but he added: “I wouldn’t say any state is doing a great job across the board.”

West Virginia prohibits the sale of cars “as is;” Massachusetts has a “used car lemon law;” and California caps the interest rate markup that dealers can charge, he said. 

Ann Boland changes her headlight at the Changing Gears garage. (Lucy May | WCPO)

The most beneficial change, he said, would be to bring “more transparency and consistency” to the used car marketplace so it was clear what people were paying and if those prices were consistent among different groups of people.

“Nobody goes to buy a can of beans or even a television or whatever else expecting that other people are going to get a much better deal than they do at the same store or that they aren’t even going to know what the price is when they walk in the store,” Van Alst said.

It also would help to separate the various transactions that can go into buying a used car, he said, so that negotiating the price of a car and a trade-in and financing aren’t all intertwined.

“The problem is right now, the way they make their money is so hidden and everybody is treated so differently, it leads to an awful lot of bad consequences,” Van Alst said.

But until any of those sweeping changes happen, people like Ann Boland and Ashley Keith will count on nonprofits like Changing Gears.

‘Not enough time in the day’

Keith is a 28-year-old single mom who lives in Evanston. She had been driving a 2006 Pontiac until it got totaled in a crash in March.

“That was a big blow to everything,” she said. “I have a very active 7-year-old son, and I was getting ready to start a new job. A little under two weeks before I started that job, I had to figure out how I was going to get there and coordinate and figure out where he was going to go.” 

Ashley Keith in the car she bought from Changing Gears. (Lucy May | WCPO)

Keith heard about Changing Gears and, like all the organization’s clients, went through several programs at CityLink Center first.

To qualify for Changing Gears, people have to earn no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. That means a family of two can earn no more than $39,825 per year. A family of three can earn no more than $50,225 per year. Many clients earn far less.

Once Changing Gears staff determines that potential clients meet the income guidelines, they go to CityLink.

They get financial literacy training from Smart Money Community Services and also get their vision screened through the clinic there. 

Like Boland, Keith put in her volunteer hours at Changing Gears and learned a lot even though she had owned a car before, she said.

Having her car from Changing Gears has made her life much easier than when she had to rely on the bus, Keith said.

“I don’t think that, especially as a single mother, Metro is efficient enough for me to do the things that I need to do,” she said. “There’s not enough time in the day for me to work 40 hours a week, and my son is in soccer and karate. There’s not enough time for me to get all that done without a car.”

‘I was at the bottom’

Boland was a successful real estate agent until health problems required her to have 12 major surgeries in three and a half years and left her unable to work for a while. She lost her car when she could no longer make the payments.

“I was at the bottom,” Boland said.

By the time Boland was well enough to work again, she struggled to find a job.

A friend reminded her about CityLink, where Boland had donated money and volunteered years earlier before her health problems began. 

Changing Gears staff and volunteers fix up and detail cars at the West End garage. (Lucy May | WCPO)

She got IT training through Per Scholas and graduated from that training with a job just a few miles away from her home in Madisonville. The job requires her to drive to Dayton once a week, and for a while she borrowed a car from her daughter to make the drive.

She got her car from Changing Gears less than a month ago.

“That was an important milestone for me in getting back on my feet,” Boland said. 

Changing Gears seeks donated cars that are worth between $2,000 and $5,000. The organization has a service technician on staff that works with volunteers to get the cars back in good, working order. 

Changing Gears then sells the cars to clients for half price with a 12-month, no-interest loan. The nonprofit also helps clients with low-cost car repairs when needed.

The organization hasn’t needed to repossess any cars since it started, Bokelman said.

“It’s an opportunity for empowerment,” he said. “My favorite thing is when they pay off their car, and we get to hand them the title and say, ‘Well done! You earned this. Nobody gave it to you.’”

That day should come for Boland and Keith before this time next year. 

Ann Boland examines a part for her headlight. (Scott Wegener | WCPO)

More information about Changing Gears and CityLink Center is available online.

More information about the National Consumer Law Center and its Working Cars for Working Families program is available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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