Tosha Link said she ran into "cash flow problems" as commercial banks turned her down for loans to start her own office supply and printing business in the District.
Assistance from the newly opened Operation Hope Center in Anacostia helped her secure the $10,000 she needed to run Bara Business Solutions, which she opened in January at 2851 Georgia Ave. NW.
"It was a tremendous difference," Miss Link said about the way the nonprofit financial services center used its political leverage to get her a Small Business Administration loan.
On Wednesday, Operation Hope and its partners among government agencies and banks held the grand opening for the center at 2509 Good Hope Road in Southeast.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization has set home and business ownership for Anacostia residents as primary goals in one of the Washington area's most economically depressed neighborhoods.
Startup funding included a $2.5 million grant from E-Trade Financial, a New York financial services company, and $1.6 million from the U.S. Labor, Commerce and Education departments.
The neighborhood's location close to downtown and commercial real estate developments along the Anacostia Waterfront offer "a lot of opportunity," said Arlen Gelbard, E-Trade Financial's chief banking officer.
Much of the economic opportunity is untapped because, "You got to educate people about how to use it," he said.
The center offers free assistance obtaining loans as well as financial counseling and education in a Ward 8 neighborhood where only 23 percent of the residents own homes and many lack good credit.
Operation Hope will tell loan seekers specific actions they must take to improve their credit scores, then provide matching grants for each dollar a client contributes toward a down payment, up to $5,000. If they still are turned down for a residential loan, Operation Hope will fund the loan itself.
The average home-ownership rate throughout the metropolitan area is about 64 percent, according to Delta Associates, a real estate research firm. The nationwide average is 68 percent.
Ward 8 also has the highest rates of unemployment, high school dropouts and teen pregnancy, all of which form barriers to obtaining credit and financial independence, according to community and government leaders who attended the dedication ceremony.
"We have sort of a negative public image," said D.C. Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat.
Many residents conduct their business only in cash because they lack credit cards and bank accounts, he said.
The Operation Hope Center includes a room with 15 computers that clients can use to learn computer skills, write resumes, get free credit reports and search the Internet for jobs or other economic information.
It is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. It is staffed by 12 employees.
The center assigns clients case managers to coach them on arranging their finances or seeking loans.
"It's private banking for the working class," said John Bryant, Operation Hope chief executive officer and a former investment banker.
The counseling includes warning clients against predatory lenders, who might charge exorbitant interest rates to poor people desperate for loans.
Mr. Bryant said a common oversight of "financially illiterate" people is that, "They don't ask what the interest rate is, they ask what the loan payment is."
Nationwide, personal bankruptcies have more than quadrupled since 1980 to 1.56 million last year, according to U.S. government figures.
Financial education seminars are conducted by the center's staff and volunteers from among Operation Hope's partners, which include M&T Bank and Countrywide Financial in the Washington area.
The center opened six months ago as a test of the District's market before the grand opening Wednesday. It already has secured more than $2 million in loans for Washington clients and $130 million nationwide since it was founded in Los Angeles in 1992.
Operation Hope runs six other financial centers, all of them in California.