Allison Wolf got her start in the financial services industry as a college student in 1998, when she took a job as a part-time teller in Long Beach, California. Many things caught Allison’s attention during those formative first few years; however, she found herself particularly entranced by the work of the branch’s loan officers. “It looked like so much fun to be able to help people to achieve their homeownership goals,” said Allison. “It was a simpler model back then, but that’s what got me started.”
In the subsequent years, Allison worked her way up to a regional position, which spanned from San Diego to Santa Maria. Although she loved her job working alongside loan officers and credit analysts, 13 years ago, Allison had the opportunity to pull up her Southern Californian roots and start somewhere new. Allison, her husband, and their dogs piled into their RV, rented out their home, and hit the road to, as she puts it, “see what life would bring.” As it would turn out, life would lead Allison to Roanoke, Virginia, where her husband put himself through medical school and became a nurse, and where Allison went to the local credit union and applied for a job.
That’s how Allison became the Housing Advocate at Freedom First Credit Union. Since 1956, Freedom First Credit Union has been serving communities throughout Virginia’s Roanoke and New River Valleys through local investments, lower rates on loans, higher rates on deposits, and innovative banking services that support members working to build their financial independence. Freedom First is also a CNote Impact Cash® Partner. CNote deploys Impact Cash® dollars into mission-driven NCUA-insured partners like Freedom First, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country.
In addition to its Responsible Rides® program, one of Freedom First’s signature programs is its Affordable Housing program, where Allison and her team take a “common-sense” approach to helping people get into homes, including in some of the most physically segregated cities in the country. In other words, Freedom First is willing to work with unbanked and underbanked individuals and to offer situational lending opportunities to nontraditional borrowers because the credit union knows its community better than anyone.
For example, around Roanoke, the majority of firefighters work about nine 24-hour shifts a month. Although many of these firefighters also work as emergency room technicians or paramedics, a large percentage of firefighters in Allison’s community work seasonally. Therefore, unlike other lenders, Freedom First is willing to take the average of a firefighter’s seasonal or part-time income when determining what kind of down payment assistance or first-time homebuyer loan for which they can qualify. Another example may be assisting single mothers who choose to work two part-time jobs versus full time to best align with young children’s school schedules. Our program also allows for alternate credit documentation for individuals who do not have a credit score. “We really just try to make logical, common-sense decisions,” Allison said. “Especially for things that are common in our market.”
An Ecosystem of Support
Allison and her team are part of a much broader ecosystem of support, both within Freedom First Credit Union and within the surrounding community. For example, Allison works closely with Kim English of the credit union’s Responsible Rides® program and other colleagues within the Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center, which provides no-cost financial counseling services that are vital to helping someone reach their goal of homeownership. Counselors will work with individuals to look through pay stubs, make savings plans, create budgets, and set target credit scores. Unsurprisingly, Allison and the folks within the Financial Empowerment Center often work with members for months, or sometimes even years, to help first-time homebuyers build credit, save for a down payment, access down payment assistance, understand closing costs, find a trusted realtor, and, for unique cases, recommend custom underwriting.
Within the broader community, Freedom First’s Affordable Housing program works through a number of partnerships, including with Habitat for Humanity, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, the City of Roanoke, the Community Development Financial Institution Fund, and others. Together, these partners have generated some major impact. For example, in 2022, Freedom First secured $223,000 in down payment assistance for borrowers through partner organizations. Additionally, during that same period, Freedom First distributed $85.6 million in home loans to hundreds of borrowers in southwest and central Virginia from a wide range of loan programs, including the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Affairs housing assistance, Virginia Housing, the United States Department of Agriculture, and more. Incredibly, $26 million of the total home loans in that same year went to low-to-moderate income borrowers, who made up 31% of the total number of borrowers. Without Freedom First’s Affordable Housing program, many of those individuals wouldn’t have otherwise been able to become homeowners.
An important part of the community network that Allison works within is actually other banks and large financial institutions in her region. According to Allison, neighboring banks and mortgage brokers refer borrowers to her and vice versa. “If there’s a better program for someone at a mortgage company, I happily send them their way,” Allison said. “Those of us who work in this space understand that we can strip our egos and get down to helping folks, because there are so many more people that need our help than we can serve. It’s a pretty humble crowd that we work with.”
By focusing on serving their community rather than competing for borrowers, Allison and her team are able to do some truly inspiring work. That includes getting creative to help people in dire straits to be able to stay in their home by making non-conforming home loans for those who may not qualify for traditional lending. For example, a few years ago, Freedom First partnered with Habitat for Humanity to help purchase a home for a married pair of disabled veterans. However, when one of them passed away, the other was left to carry the mortgage with half of the family’s income source gone. Allison worked with Habitat to refinance the loan and to keep that family from becoming homeless. “Nobody else would have touched that loan, because she didn’t have good credit and it was a low loan amount,” Allison said. “It didn’t look pretty on paper, but we knew that this person was going to do absolutely everything they could to keep that home and that roof over their head, so for us, it was worth the risk.”
A More Holistic Approach to Purchasing
One of Allison’s dreams for the future is for there to be a central hub that borrowers could easily access. According to Allison, she sometimes feels like there are so many resources out there; however, those resources tend to be “so individualized.” If she could wave a magic wand, she’d like to consolidate resources, make processes more efficient, and align funding streams with shared initiatives, whether that’s creating more affordable housing opportunities in formerly redlined neighborhoods or investing more in community land trusts.
For example, Allison is on the board of Renovation Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on improving the homes and lives of low-income homeowners. The nonprofit, along with Freedom First and other partners participate in Healthy Homes Roanoke,a public-private collaborative that works to make homes in Roanoke healthier, safer and more comfortable for our most vulnerable residents. Partners include The City of Roanoke, Carilion Clinic and other big players with a goal of taking a more holistic approach to funding home repairs. That means that if a home is deemed to need a new roof but the homeowner is on a fixed income, these partners will step up to not just replace the roof, but to also do things like evaluate the windows and conduct any lead-based paint abatement. “They’re pulling all those partners together and doing everything that needs to be done to sustain that home for a long time,” Allison said. “I’d love to one day see that in the world of purchasing.”
- Freedom First Credit Union is a member-owned, federally insured community financial institution headquartered in Roanoke, VA since its founding in 1956.
- Freedom First’s Affordable Housing Program | Through partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, the City of Roanoke, the Community Development Financial Institution Fund, and more, Freedom First has a wealth of resources for down payment assistance and non-conforming home loans for those who may not qualify for a traditional mortgage.
- CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.