All photos/art by Christopher Churchill
President, Bonnie CLAC
Lebanon, New Hampshire
Robert Chambers was a used-car salesman when he witnessed colleagues high-fiving over a big bonus, money made at the expense of a low-income single mother. “The car was completely wrong for her, something she couldn’t afford,” recalls Robert. The industry preys on poor women, he notes. “After that, I decided to find a way to help.”
With fellow auto salesman Leo Hamill, he founded Bonnie CLAC (Car Loans and Counseling), a nonprofit company that guarantees loans, in 2001. Backed by Bonnie CLAC, subprime buyers purchase new, gas-efficient cars at low interest rates. In the process, they repair their credit, and in many cases, their lives as well.
One recent client is Brandy Todd, 39, of Williamstown, Vermont. The single mother of three was driving a 16-year-old Subaru with 188,000 miles on it, and the repairs, she says, were “costing me an arm and a leg … but I was afraid to take on a car payment.” She was finishing up a bachelor’s degree at the time. “I didn’t think I could swing it,” she recalls.
A Bonnie CLAC budget counselor helped Brandy compare the cost of repairs with a car payment. “Having someone look at my finances and tell me I could afford it was the affirmation I needed,” she says. She kept the new car a secret from her kids; she says she’ll never forget the looks on their faces when she pulled up to school and day care in her Toyota Sienna minivan: “They were so psyched. Everyone had enough room, and for their backpacks, too.”
Robert, 63, once directed fundraising to build Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He says this breadth of experience is key to Bonnie CLAC’s success: He cuts across class lines and red tape, bringing lenders, borrowers, businesses, and grant monies to the table. “Everyone is treated with dignity,” he adds.
A confluence of circumstances squeezes low-income buyers, Robert explains: They’re steered toward older vehicles, which tend to have high maintenance, repair, and fuel costs; loans for older cars carry higher interest rates; saddled with poor credit, buyers are often charged usurious sums. “We’ve seen interest rates as high as 35 percent,” he notes.
Since he personally guarantees each loan, Robert makes sure clients buy cars they can afford: He helps teach a required six-week course on financial fitness, covering topics such as balancing a checkbook and monthly budgeting. The course has evolved over the past six years. A new segment on how to cook tasty, healthful family meals on a budget is geared toward moms; women make up more than 70 percent of Bonnie CLAC’s clientele.
Robert partners with local banks and dealerships for discount rates, he says, to “wring every nickel out of the car-buying budget.” Clients pay an initial $65 fee to begin; later, an $800 consulting and guarantee fee is rolled into the financing package, so that the program can remain sustainable. Sustainability of another kind is also on Robert’s agenda: Many Bonnie CLAC clients choose low-emissions models from Honda and Toyota. “The American ego is tied to transportation, but the system has disenfranchised low-income buyers,” says Robert, as he squeezes his lanky frame into a mid-size Honda. “We can solve their problems while also helping to save the environment.”
Learn more at: 866-455-2522, 603-727-7006; bonnieclac.org
Since 2001, Bonnie CLAC has guaranteed more than $13 million in car loans and helped nearly 1,000 people buy cars in New Hampshire and neighboring states. With funding from a recent grant, Bonnie CLAC will soon open offices in Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Cofounder Robert Chambers aims to expand the organization nationwide and is in the process of lobbying for a federal earned-income tax credit for clients.