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SPUR of the moment


MAF explores the connection between urban planning and financial access.

It’s mid afternoon on an exceptionally warm summer day in San Francisco as people begin to file into a sun-drenched room at SPUR’s offices on Mission and 2nd Street waiting to hear about creating a new path to financial empowerment. Unlike the usual groups of people (banks, tech companies, nonprofits, asset-builders) who usually come to hear Jose talk about MAF, all of the people in this room are urban planners.

These are the people who work to make the city’s streets navigable, the buildings impressive and unobtrusive, the parks green and inviting, and the traffic flowing smoothly. So why would urban planners – people who are interested in the tangible aspects of city planning –  be interested in financial empowerment? Simply put, a strong vibrant city needs an economically empowered base.

A city is like a living organism; when its residents get stronger, the entire city gets stronger.

Jose started with talking about how important economic empowerment is for creating a sustainable urban environment. It’s not an argument we often talk about because we’re usually in a different sort of crowd. So we weren’t entirely sure how this would go over, but to our surprise the crowd was in full agreement.

We used this opportunity to dig deeper into the meaning of financial empowerment and its immediate impacts upon communities and cities. We talked about innovative approaches to creating financially empowered communities that no longer have to resort to subsisting on payday loans and other high cost debt.

One of the SPUR members asked, “I’d love to see an effort made to make credit unions feel more accessible… by emulating Check Cashing stores.” Jose replied, “ While on the surface that may seem like a constructive idea, to create a familiar space for individuals. Emulating pay day lenders would encourage and reinforce the cycle of debt as well as the subsistence patterns that we are trying to move people away from.”

By emulating a pay day lender, we are not modeling positive financial behaviors. We want to move people from those groups towards lower cost, mainstream financial services.

It was at this point the crowd fully understood what MAF was about. When we meet people where they are, we recognize the financial aptitude of our members as well as how they navigate the financial pain points of their lives.

We see the financial savviness they have developed and we use it to transform them. For us, neither subsistence nor replacement is the goal. We don’t want to replace a broken system with another system. We want to move our members to a functional and formalized pattern of saving, investing, and credit building.

Economic planning goes hand-in-hand with the financial stability of an entire city. That’s just as important as creating bike lanes that are wide enough or buildings that are up to code. It’s about taking a longer view of sustainability of a city, its culture, and the quality of life for everyone. Urban planning does not end with the sidewalk; it begins with the people who use that sidewalk.

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