Upward Mobility

A refurbished set of wheels from Vehicles for Change can help people get their lives in gear.

Spirit of Sharing

December 28, 2005|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN REPORTER

Shanaia Toliver is buying herself and her kids a new ride for the new year - a nice-looking, bronze-colored, four-door, twin-cam 1994 Saturn with a sunroof and 149,409 miles on the odometer.

"This is better than the toys for the kids," Toliver says, happily. "Mommy came out on top this year."

Toliver's had bad luck with cars since she got her license in April - a couple transmissions have failed. She's been without a car for about six months.

"I've been catching the bus. Catching a ride," says the patient-care technician at University of Maryland Medical Center at Greene and Baltimore streets.

Toliver, 25, was one of four people picking up their cars just before Christmas at Vehicles for Change, on Washington Boulevard in Halethorpe.

Vehicles for Change (VFC), which is putting Toliver into the Saturn, might best be described as a nonprofit used-car lot that puts people with low incomes in low-cost cars. People who donate cars to VFC receive tax deductions.

"We do everything," says Martin Schwartz, VFC's executive director. "We pick it up. We handle all the tax deductions. We repair it and provide it to the family."

Schwartz launched the program in Howard County in 1999. But his first real sponsor was Carroll County, which still participates in the program. VFC has become a model for similar programs nationwide and offers its services from Carroll County to Richmond, Va.

"Our goal is to provide folks with a car they're going to get two years, 24,000 miles, out of," Schwartz says.

"We feel like at that point they'll have gotten a better job," he says. "They'll be making more money. And they can typically sell their car for more than what they paid for it. For the cars we use in the program, the average Kelley Blue Book value is $4,200."

He figures if they take care of the car, when sold, they'll get "about what they paid for it," he says. "So it gives them something for a down payment on another car. They've got a credit history and they've got a better job. They've moved up."

Qualifications for VFC participation are strict and open: you must have a job, or a verifiable job offer; you have to be insurable - no DWIs or DUIs; you must be drug-free and have no "extensive criminal background"; you can't have any other vehicle in the household; you have to be able to pay for insurance, taxes, tags and title upfront and take on a 12-month loan to pay for the car.

The "recipients" are guaranteed a loan without regard to their credit history. VFC, in effect, backs the loan - although the car is collateral and they do repossess one or two cars each month.

"Our program is only limited by the number of cars that are donated," Schwartz says.

The organization generally gets 100 cars to 140 cars a month, except in December, when the number swells to between 200 and 250, perhaps in the spirit of the season, or because of the need for a year-end tax deduction.

About a third of the vehicles are good enough to be reconditioned and recycled for their clients. The rest go to auction. Schwartz says all of the money VFC gets goes to repair vehicles for recipients.

VFC has just gotten a retail sales license, meaning vehicles such as a just-donated 2001 Honda Odyssey might be sold retail.

"We'll explain to that donor that we can retail this car for $9,000," Schwartz says. "If you let us [sell it], we can help nine families. If we use the car in the [VFC] program, we help one family."

Currently, the organization has contracts in Maryland and Virginia to sell 52 VFC cars each month. But generally it moves between 35 and 45 a month.

"We have the cars," Schwartz says, "but they don't always have all the applications."

VFC doesn't take applications directly. Its clients are referred by sponsoring agencies like Strive Baltimore, Christopher Place, Rose Street Community Center or Metropolitan Baltimore Quadel, or MBQ. Income limits range from $16,391 for a single person to $44,881 for a family of six.

MBQ, a housing program, took Toliver's application. She's paying $1,080 for her car, $84.99 a month, plus the cost of insurance, tags, taxes, title and a premium AAA membership.

MBQ also referred Kevin Lashley, 44, who lives in Columbia and works as a maintenance man at a McDonald's. He's getting a 1996 Dodge Caravan with 145,579 miles on the odometer. The car will cost him $1,130, plus the additional expenses; his monthly payment is $88.62.

Lashley is something of a rarity among VFC recipients.

"Probably 80 to 90 percent are single moms with two or three children," Schwartz says.

Lashley is a handsome, taciturn man with tightly braided dreadlocks. He's taking care of five children. But he's not a single father.

"I'm a single uncle," he says. The children are his brother's. He doesn't volunteer anything about his brother, other than he can't take care of the children.

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