Jonathan Porter, a client of Northwest Access Fund, which is a CDFI that assisted CCLF in integrating "Accessibility" into its DEI strategy, on a plenary at the 2023 OFN conference.

Jonathan Porter, a Northwest Access Fund client, on a plenary at the 2023 OFN conference

DEI+A: Chicago CDFI Adds Accessibility to its DEI Strategy  

Angela Dowell, CFO, Chicago Community Loan Fund, and Emerson Sekins, CEO, Northwest Access Fund.

Both authors are members of the National Disability Finance Coalition

Chicago Community Loan Fund and Northwest Access Fund call on CDFIs to be intentional about lending to the disability community as part of any DEI strategy.

Read time: 8 minutes

According to data from the National Disability Institute, people with disabilities experience substantial disparities in poverty rates, education levels, savings, net worth, and job loss compared to people without disabilities. And these disparities widen for people of color.   

Most, if not all, CDFIs serve people with disabilities, whether they know it or not. At the same time, when mission lenders are not intentional about lending to support people with disabilities, they’re limiting the impact that’s possible for a community that is largely underinvested.  

Chicago Community Loan Fund recognized a lack of intentional investment in disability-focused projects despite the CDFI’s long history of investing in this area. Partnering with the National Disability Finance Coalition and Northwest Access Fund, it integrated “Accessibility” into its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy. The partners offer an inside look into this process and why intentionality matters as part of OFN’s series focused on equity, inclusion, and accessibility in lending.  

Read more in OFN’s Operationalizing Racial, Inclusion, and Accessibility (REIA) into Lending Practices toolkit. The resource was developed under OFN’s Career Meets Purpose initiative, which aims to help CDFI practitioners and partners expand their knowledge and skills to achieve the most significant impact. The National Disability Finance Coalition collaborated with OFN on incorporating Accessibility into the toolkit.  

Jonathan Porter rolled onto the main stage at OFN’s 2023 conference to share his personal CDFI story and deliver a call to action for the mission lending industry.  

From the stage, Jonathan helped us understand the critical role our field can play in changing the lives of the more than 61 million people with disabilities, like himself.  

He asked that every CDFI’s strategy include the disability community including people with age-related, intellectual, physical, substance-abuse, or other challenges — as mission lenders pursue finance justice.  

Northwest Access Fund (NWAF), a consumer CDFI loan fund in the Pacific Northwest, helped Jonathan finance two of his wheelchairs. The chair’s functions and features improve his independence, quality of life, and ability to get to work. A seat elevation mechanism, which insurance doesn’t cover because it isn’t deemed medically necessary, enabled Jonathan “at one of the more momentous events in [his] life, be eye-to-eye with [his] wife at [his] wedding.” 

On their wedding day, Jonathan Porter, a client of Northwest Access Fund, which is a CDFI that assisted CCLF in integrating "Accessibility" into its DEI strategy, poses with his wife Alexis.

As a disability advocate, Jonathan knows his story is only one of many. In front of OFN’s audience of more than 2,000 mission lenders, he highlighted the broader economic challenges faced by people with disabilities and their families, and how CDFIs can help. 

Photo: Jonathan Porter and his wife Alexis on their wedding day. 

Making the Case for Accessibility in Lending  

Nationwide, 61 million Americans, or 26% of the population, live with a disability. They face some of the most severe financial hardships, underscoring the adage that disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty.  

On the aggregate, people with disabilities have higher rates of poverty, and they pay an additional $17,690 per year to achieve the same standard of living as those who don’t have a disability. 

These disparities are compounded by the fact that people with disabilities are more likely to be low-income and unbanked. They disproportionately lack access to mainstream credit and then turn to predatory financial services to fill financing gaps. 

To tell the full story of financial distress and economic inequities of the disability community, we must disaggregate the data by race and ethnicity. According to the National Disability Institute, “race and disability are overlapping identities that are both related to systemic inequality:”   

  • Nearly 40% of Black/African Americans living with disabilities live in poverty, and Black/African American families are more likely to have someone living with a disability. 
  • A higher percentage of Black households with a disability have an annual income of less than $15,000 (43.3% of Black households compared to 25.6% of white households) and an average net worth of just $1,282.  
  • The percentage of unbanked households is 2.6 times higher in Black households with a disability compared to white households with a disability. 
  • 67% of African American/Black families with a disability are unbanked or underbanked, compared with 40% of white households. 

Targeting Mission Capital for Transformation 

This abundance of data and evidence is precisely why the CDFI Fund recently designated People with Disabilities as an Other Targeted Population (OTP). 

This designation did not happen overnight. It was the culmination of years of advocacy efforts from the disability community and CDFIs that serve people with disabilities. Including people with disabilities as a targeted population represents a massive opportunity for CDFIs to better serve the disability community.  

With this new designation, many CDFIs will discover they already serve people with disabilities through their work in housing, community facilities, small business, and consumer financing.  

What does disability finance look like? It is: 

  • Supportive, affordable, and accessible housing for people with age-related, intellectual, physical, substance-abuse, or other challenges. 
  • Community facilities that provide services for people with disabilities. 
  • Commercial real estate that is accessible for all employees and customers. 
  • Small businesses run by, employing, or serving people with disabilities. 
  • Assistive technologies that improve the ability of people with disabilities to live full lives. 

Chicago Community Loan Fund Hears the Call for Accessibility  

At the conference, Jonathan shared that, as a person with a disability, “Every day is a problem-solving journey.”  

National Disability Finance Coalition (NDFC) understands this and knows the CDFI industry comprises dedicated and passionate problem solvers.  

We launched in 2015 as a bridge between the CDFI and disability communities and to spur further CDFI investments and innovations to benefit people with disabilities across all our communities and sectors.  

CDFIs are all at different stages in including people with disabilities in their finance justice strategies. We recently collaborated with Chicago Community Loan Fund (CCLF), one of our members, to help the CDFI update its DEI strategy to include accessibility, making it DEIA. 

Adding “A” to DEI

CCLF mainly focuses on affordable housing, commercial real estate, social enterprises, and community facilities lending in low-to moderate-income areas in the six-county Chicagoland area.  

Like most CDFIs, we didn’t intentionally focus on people with disabilities, but we have indirectly served the disability community through our loans for supportive housing, senior housing, and community facilities.  

Through CCLF’s longstanding partnership with NDFC, our leadership and board saw an opportunity to embed accessibility into our recently established DEI strategy, which includes specific accessibility goals for our board and staff, borrowers, and beneficiaries.  

Our new DEIA strategy not only supports CCLF’s lending but also provides a road map to focus more intentionally on accessible features in lending and provide technical assistance to developers to encourage accessibility in projects.  

This graphic illustrates our systemic approach to establishing concrete goals and activities to embed disability into our overall DEI framework. 

This graphic illustrates NDFC systemic approach to establishing concrete goals and activities to embed disability into the overall DEI framework. 

CCLF brings this framework to life, for instance, by offering lower interest rates to borrowers who incorporate accessible features in their projects. We have also set a goal of incorporating accessibility in 10% of our annual lending. 
One example of a current project that ties to our strategy is CCLF’s $3.7 million loan to Rimland Services, which offers support for people with autism. The loan enabled Rimland to move from a rented location to a 30,000-square-foot permanent home on five acres with several classrooms, a gymnasium, a greenhouse, outdoor basketball courts, a library, an activities room, a playground, a music room, and more — all features that help its clients thrive.  

While CCLF and Rimland have a longstanding relationship of more than 16 years, this loan was designed according to our new DEIA framework. CCLF was able to provide a lower interest rate because the loan serves people with disabilities and people of color.  

CCLF hopes its more intentional focus on serving people with disabilities will lead to additional projects like this and inspire more CDFIs to include accessibility in their DEI strategies. 

For those who want to learn more, National Disability Finance Coalition offers resources, education, advocacy, and the practical tools CDFIs need to continue or begin solving problems caused by our inaccessible world and the chasm of economic and racial inequality in the disability community. There is no cost to join our coalition. 

Learn More

Download the Operationalizing Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility into Lending Practices toolkit.

Watch OFN’s CONNECT+ Webinar on Designing Loan Products that Advance Racial Justice.

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