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Texas nonprofit helps low-income vehicle owners afford auto repairs

by | Jan 24, 2023

At any given time, about 1 in 5 vehicle owners are delaying some sort of auto repair, with the most common reason being that they can’t afford it, according to the Auto Care Association Factbook. All this deferred work adds up to an estimated $31 billion that drivers would like to spend on fixing cars and trucks, but often can’t.

For repair providers, that’s a big opportunity, but for vehicle owners it can often mean crisis. Drivers strapped for cash can face a choice between ignoring a needed repair and making it worse, or adding to their financial woes by using expensive credit to pay for it.

A nonprofit in northern Texas named Autocare Haven has been working for a few years now to address this problem in its local community. Focusing on veterans, senior citizens, single parents, and low-income households, the group takes donations to pay for applicants’ repairs through its network of approved mechanics.

Manuel Tellez founded the organization after he had a nightmarish experience with a series of repairs needed on his 2002 Dodge Ram 1500. The aging pickup needed a series of repairs, culminating in the replacement of its heater core, and he didn’t have the money on hand. With limited options, he took out a payday loan for $1,000. With the extreme fees and interest associated with those types of loans, it cost him $7,000 by the time he was done repaying it.

Manuel Tellez

While he was going through that ordeal, he wound up talking to a number of other people who took out similar loans, and auto repair was a common reason. In that area, like many suburban or rural areas, not having an automobile doesn’t leave you with many good transportation alternatives, whether you’re going to work, the doctor’s office, or just to buy food.

“Here, you basically have three options,” he said. “You can walk, which is not a good option because the sidewalks here are terrible. Mass transit is horrible, too. I’ve seen some lists that have us at the very bottom in terms of what’s available, maybe second to last. And the third option is Uber or Lyft, but those get expensive very quickly.”

Tellez started looking around to see if there were any nearby programs that offer support for work like this, and all he found were a few random churches that offered some basic services like oil changes for their congregations. So, in 2018, he did something about it, founding Autocare Haven as an official 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

“Folks want to be able to provide for themselves and their family, they’re not lazy,” Tellez said. “But they’re also living paycheck to paycheck, and when they see a leak from their water pump, the question is how they’re going to be able to afford it. A lot of times, something small like that can develop into something like a cracked engine block if it isn’t taken care of. We get in there before it can escalate.”

It took a couple years to get it geared up, and of course COVID threw a wrench in things, so last year was the first that they were able to start ramping up services. They fixed about 16 vehicles in 2022 and held six events at the local community center and affordable housing complexes. The techs they work with handle everything from brakes and tires to CV axles and strut assemblies, only turning away more complex and expensive engine and transmission jobs.

In one recent case, they helped a single mother of three who was living in transitional housing and needed her 20-year-old Ford Escape to take her kids to school. The vehicle was shaking so badly it was unsafe to drive, and they provided a laundry list of repairs for free. When it was complete, the woman’s youngest child walked outside to thank the mobile technician who did the work.

“The way she said it really touched him,” he said. “It’s one thing when you’re providing services to a paying customer, but it’s another when you’re able to help someone like this just trying to survive.”

This year, he said they plan to more than double their impact, reapring between 30 to 70 vehicles and holding a monthly “Top-Off Event,” where people can drive up to get their vehicle fluids topped off for free and get a technician to take a look under the hood.

“If the mechanic notices something, like a cracked thermostat housing, they’ll let the owner know to prevent it from becoming something worse,” Tellez said.

They currently work with half a dozen local mobile mechanics to provide the services, although they’ve received a dozen more applications since the local public radio station did a story on the organization that got picked up by National Public Radio. Shops and mobile techs can apply on the Autocare Haven website, which is also where vehicle owners can apply, and where donors can make a tax-deductible donation, whether money or even their own vehicle.

In the course of the last few years Tellez has heard of a few other similar organizations and services elsewhere. In the Greater Houston area there’s a group called God’s Garage that provides auto repairs to single mothers, widows and wives of deployed soldiers, and in Lubbock, Texas, there’s another called Wrench It Forward that aims to move people out of poverty and homelessness with low-cost car repairs. He recently heard of another in Florida.

Right now, Tellez said he’s only planning on growing their services in the Dallas-Forth Worth metroplex, which alone comprises 11 counties and more than 7 million people.

“Just focusing on this area will keep us busy for a long while,” he said.

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