A single mother, a Habitat for Humanity beneficiary, had fallen severely behind on her mortgage payment. Now she risked losing the affordable home she and her special needs daughter relied upon — and all the stability it provided.

“She was ignoring the situation and hoping it would go away,” says Amy Born, an advisor with the HighTower firm Acacia Wealth Advisors in Beverly Hills, California, who stepped in after a Habitat employee gently told the woman, “I really think it would be helpful if you would meet with the financial planner that we bring in.”

Since 2015, Born has been helping low-income families through a one-on-one pro bono financial planning program designed to help people like the distressed mother, who Born says had paid $20,000 to $30,000 in unexpected medical expenses over a couple of years after her teenage daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Eventually, after Born’s prodding, the mother found government assistance that should enable her to keep her home.

Amy Born, of the HighTower firm Acacia Wealth Advisors, at a Habitat for Humanity project in Culver City, California.
Amy Born, of the HighTower firm Acacia Wealth Advisors, at a Habitat for Humanity project in Culver City, California.

Born is now the recipient of the 2018 Pro Bono Award for her contributions to that program, which could serve as a template for free one-on-one planning interventions at Habitat affiliates throughout Southern California and elsewhere in the country.

The award, sponsored jointly by Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning, recognizes planners who have gone above and beyond providing one-on-one pro bono planning to people who otherwise could not afford it.

To support Born’s ongoing work, the foundation will contribute $5,000 to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles to help more aspiring low-income homeowners in the prohibitively expensive local housing market. The foundation has provided past grants to help the Habitat affiliate bolster the same program’s reach.

A global nonprofit based in the United States, Habitat for Humanity helps to build, buy and rehabilitate affordable homes for low-income people here and in 70 other countries. It also provides affordable mortgages to aspiring homeowners and invites them to remain part of the Habitat community for the duration of their lives, if they so choose. The affiliate where Born volunteers is one of 1,400 such operations around the country.

Born’s history in pro bono planning predates her Habitat work. For the past seven years, she has helped run volunteer activities through the FPA of Los Angeles. From 2014 to 2017, she served as the chapter’s pro bono director. For years, she helped organize annual Financial Planning Days at the Los Angeles Public Library; this program, she says, routinely attracts about 250 people seeking help.

When Born began working with Habitat, the one-on-one program provided only sporadic services and lacked sufficient involvement from qualified planners. Not anymore.

“It was a dream probably four years ago. Now it’s standard operating procedure,” says Francesca DiBrito, vice president of development for Habitat in Los Angeles. “There’s an institutionalization that’s come because of [Born]. It’s not just Amy sitting down with families. It’s her helping us to set up a program that’s changed our cultural process with our families. I love it.”

Born’s volunteer hours go into an ecosystem chock-full of educational requirements but greatly in need of hands-on planning.

In Los Angeles, aspiring Habitat homeowners must take 40 hours of financial literacy classes to qualify to buy a newly built or rehabilitated home. They must have good credit and prove they can service a mortgage and maintain a home, financially and logistically, when it comes to repairs.

To that end, they help build their own homes and other Habitat dwellings. They save for their down payment and find traditional bank loans that they supplement with Habitat loans. The latter are often so-called “silent loans,” which cost the homeowners nothing for decades but come due all at once with a balloon payment at 30 years. Some homeowners save to pay them off or choose to do so when they sell their homes.

However, Habitat’s multifaceted program has been missing a critical piece since the greater Los Angeles chapter was founded about 30 years ago, DiBrito says. That’s customization.

Until 2015, whenever homeowners or prospective homeowners found themselves flummoxed by seemingly insurmountable financial challenges, Habitat workers had to confess that they lacked the training to help them.

Enter Born and other FPA volunteers.

Born began teaching the Habitat financial workshops, which are open to all aid recipients, from those who bought homes 10 or 20 years ago to those who expect to do so in the future.

She also has recruited about 10 CFPs to provide one-on-one planning sessions. Personally, she has worked with nearly 50 people individually so far, DiBrito says.

Born also “has connected financial planners to our sister affiliate, Habitat for Humanity in the San Gabriel Valley, which will result in serving more low-income Angelenos in the coming years,” DiBrito says. She hopes the program will be adopted by other affiliates countrywide.

Although Born meets typically with people just once, Habitat surveys have shown that the sessions have been impactful, DiBrito says. In some instances, Born does offer to meet with clients for further follow-up.

“She showed us how we could go about paying off our home,” says Frances Ramos, 42, who in November moved into a newly built Habitat home in the city of Montebello with her husband and two boys. The couple has a third boy on the way. All told, Ramos and her husband put in 500 hours building their own home and other Habitat homes for a year before they moved into their new place.

Born delivered her planning advice “in a way that was comfortable for me,” says Ramos, a stay-at-home mom whose husband makes $42,000 a year, “and she gave us different scenarios. She gave us a plan that works for us and was affordable.”

Born says her work with Habitat helps to balance the challenges of her day job, providing planning and investment services to clients with average assets of $20 million.

Most are business owners, with complex needs and predictably demanding attitudes, she says.

“For me,” Born says, “doing pro bono work brings me back down to earth, not having to deal with rich-people problems.”

A side benefit is that it sharpens her skills advising her wealthy clients’ middle class family members.

“It helps with just really practical advice for those who are just starting out,” she says.

For Ramos and her family, Habitat enabled them to leave a noisy rented duplex across the street from a drug dealer. Their new, spacious two-story, four-bedroom place has a two-car garage, a garden in front and an artificial lawn in back where their kids can play, all for a mortgage payment of $662 a month.

They live down the street from other Habitat homeowners whose homes they helped build.

Born showed Ramos how she and her husband can save for the balloon payment looming 30 years down the line, she says.

“It was helpful,” Ramos says of the input she got from Born. “I needed to hear it from an expert, from a professional that helped me have a sense of security, knowing we would be able to do this with our finances. There’s no way I would go and pay a financial planner to do this.”

For Born, there’s satisfaction working for a nonprofit that sets high standards for the people and families it serves, while also providing continuing support over the course of clients’ lives.

The goal, DiBrito says, is ambitiously long-term: to break the cycle of poverty for successive generations.

Habitat provides “a hand-up, not a handout,” Born says.

“Their goal is a sense of community,” she says, “and we are part of that.”

This year’s runner-up award for the Pro Bono Award goes to a former naval intelligence officer-turned financial planner, Dolores “Didi” Dorsett, who leverages her analytical skills from her military career to help working poor families navigate debt and budgeting challenges near the nation’s capital.