At Clarifi, a voice for indebted Americans has moved on

Patricia Hasson left her job as senior credit officer at CoreStates in 1998, when that last and biggest of the commercial banks that once anchored Center City was acquired and eviscerated in the merger mania that convulsed the industry.

Hasson landed the top job at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Delaware Valley, which helped people who had financial trouble with credit cards, home, auto and student loans. Many faced foreclosure.

She renamed it Clarifi and ran it for the next 21 years, building a staff to work with lenders for better terms. The agency helped borrowers cut costs with lower-rate home-repair loans than the high rates and fees lenders usually imposed on the people least able to pay.

And she became a voice for people struggling with finances while heading an agency that eventually totaled 40 staff and a $5 million budget to counsel several thousand debtors a year,

Hasson was drafted onto the regional Federal Reserve board, then the national Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advisory board. Meeting with bankers and big employers, she advocated loan transparency, debt renegotiation, and regulator action against bad business ideas, like dog-leasing or rent-to-own wedding dresses.

And now that era is over, amid what Hasson and others hope will be a gentler wave of consolidations of nonprofit social-service agencies, which face some of the same pressures that fed the bank mergers earlier in her career. She stepped down last month. “It was time,” she said.

One of Hasson’s last big decisions was to negotiate Clarifi’s affiliation in May with GreenPath Financial Wellness, a Detroit-based housing-counseling service that provides combined back-office systems for counselors in parts of 22 states, from Long Island to San Diego.

“Doing direct services, counseling work, is hard,” says Hasson. But a local nonprofit needs more than counselors: “You need a person to run the back office, someone for the finances, someone for the technology — it is really important to protect people’s confidentiality and data, we were really good at that — and an HR generalist to manage personnel challenges, hiring, retirement. And it’s hard to build up a support person that can be ready when any of them leaves.”

The balance between front-line and back-office was “a daily struggle,” she added. “You can’t hire a team if you don’t have the volume.” Creditors would send batches of borrowers to national counseling agencies for quick resolution, leaving regionals like Clarifi with "the tougher cases. It made sense to become part of a larger organization.”

Hasson’s successor, Steve Gardner, said, “Patty affiliating with GreenPath has been very helpful. It eliminates the concern about HR, back office, accounting, audit. We can focus on what we do well — keeping people from foreclosure.”

A lifelong Philadelphian, Gardner took the job after a 40-year career at Deloitte, the Big Four accounting firm.He built his career auditing Philadelphia neighborhood banks as they prepared to merge, and stepped up to audit units of the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund — plus payday lenders, which pricked his conscience: “How could these people’s life be such that when their kid falls down the steps, they need to borrow money [at double- and triple-digit interest rates] to get him to the doctor?”

He’s learning. Two months into the job, Gardner has a slightly haunted stare, and talks like a man on a mission: “It’s a lot of blocking and tackling,” he said. “So many people need our services. The issue is how to fund everything.”

He said medical providers are considering sponsoring credit counselors, as some employers do, because they see bad financial health as a factor in physical and mental illness: “If you can’t fix a leaky roof, you end up with a sick child.”

Not everyone who goes for credit counseling is poor, Clarifi’s annual reports show. “Especially during the housing crisis, some of it was educated people for whom income was not a factor,” Hasson said. They had bought too much house and couldn’t sell it in the recession. Or too much college — many college borrowers never get their degree or that boost in income that is supposed to help justify years of financial sacrifice.

More recently, she saw borrowers flooding into fintech lenders, who collect customer data from social media and other online sources, and deliver loans fast, but sometimes at high cost.

Hasson and Gardner cheer recent efforts to add basic financial education in grade schools and high schools. But it will be a long time before even comprehensive efforts pay off: “We don’t have an issue finding clients,” Gardner said.