A social worker noticed clients struggling to pay for car repair. So she became a mechanic

Cathy Heying Lift
Cathy Heying, founder and executive director of Lift Garage in Minneapolis.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

Any car owner knows — cars aren’t cheap to own and run. Besides the cost of buying a car and paying for fuel, there’s insurance, maintenance and repair bills.

Yet across Minnesota, most people need a car for work, grocery shopping, visiting friends and other activities. While for many people it’s inconvenient when their car breaks down, the experience can be financially disastrous for people living on low and unstable incomes.

Lift Garage in Minneapolis offers low-cost repairs for those living on little.

MPR’s senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently spent some time at Lift, talking to it’s founder and executive director, Cathy Heying.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Any car owner knows that cars are not cheap to own and run. Besides the cost of buying a car and paying for fuel, there is insurance, maintenance, and repair bills. Yet across Minnesota, most people need a car for work, grocery shopping, visiting friends, and other activities. While for many people it's inconvenient when their car breaks down, the experience can be financially disastrous for folks living on low and unstable incomes.

Lift Garage in Minneapolis offers low-cost repairs for those living on little. MPR's senior economics contributor Chris Farrell recently spent some time at Lift Garage and he is with us right now. Hey, welcome back.

CHRIS FARRELL: Good to be here, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Tell us about Lift Garage.

CHRIS FARRELL: So lift garage is on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. And Cathy Heying is the founder and executive director. So Cathy, here's how she describes the business of Lift.

CATHY HEYING: The Lift Garage is a non-profit auto repair shop. We provide low-cost car repair for low-income Minnesotans. We charge just $15 an hour for labor and parts at cost. In a traditional shop, the labor rate right now average is about $150 an hour and parts are marked up anywhere from 50% to 200%. So folks coming to us are experiencing a great savings.

CHRIS FARRELL: So she showed me around the garage. It has five bays for repairing cars and lots of tools and equipment.

CATHY HEYING: Five-bay shop. So everything that is-- that you see in here, except for the technicians tools, are things that The Lift has had to buy or get donated or acquire or install. So it's not an inexpensive operation car repair. I feel like my late father a lot, where I'm just like, why is everything $5,000? Why isn't anything just 1,000? You know, I feel like I'm saying things like that a lot.

CHRIS FARRELL: So Mark, he's one of the mechanics. He was working on a car during my visit.

MARK: Has oil cooler and oil filter is down in the valley of the engine and it's leaking. It will leak a bunch of oil and coolant down into the valley and then it pours down the back of the engine. And the only way to repair that is by removing the intake manifold, and then replacing that whole oil cooler oil filter assembly.

CHRIS FARRELL: And to be honest, I did not understand a word that you said.


But it was really cool.

CATHY WURZER: I used to have a car like that. OK. So you're not really a car person. That's all right.

CHRIS FARRELL: No. Not at all. Not even close, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Oh gosh. So what about I'm curious, though, about the background of Cathy. Is she kind of a gearhead?

CHRIS FARRELL: No. She had-- her background is social work. She had a master's degree in pastoral ministry, and she was working for a church in South Minneapolis, which also ran a shelter for single adult men experiencing homelessness and she saw how a car repair was often a make-or-break situation.

CATHY HEYING: When you live in poverty, it is like a giant jenga game. That's how I picture it and you pull the-- pull the one wrong block and everything falls. And I was often seeing that car repair was either that block that helped build you up or the block that made everything fall. People would come to the church asking for money for car repair assistance.

The details changed, but the gist was the same. I live in Minneapolis, I work second shift in Chaska. There's no bus that runs at 11:00 o'clock when I get off at night. If I don't get my car fixed, I'm not going to be able to get to work. I'll lose my job. I won't be able to pay rent, and everything will fall apart.

CATHY WURZER: So really she realized that somebody has to do something-- and that that person was her.

CHRIS FARRELL: So Cathy, I look at this as a classic story about entrepreneurship. So she saw a problem, she realized one solution was creating a social enterprise that offered low-cost car repairs for people without much money. And she kept thinking, hey, someone else, they're going to pick up this idea and run with it.

CATHY HEYING: And then I just couldn't stop thinking about it, even though it made no sense in my life whatsoever. I don't have a background in cars. I did not grow up in a family that fixed their own cars. Nothing. But I found I got to a point where I just felt like I needed to do something.

CATHY WURZER: All right. So how did she pick up her know-how about cars?

CHRIS FARRELL: So she made a career pivot at age 38. She went to Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis and got an associate degree in auto technology. And The Lift opened for business in 2013. And Cathy at first, she actually sublet one bay a week using all volunteers, including herself. She thought, you know, maybe this operation might be something she'd do on the side, but the enterprise grew rapidly.

CATHY HEYING: I don't fix cars much anymore. In fact, when I'm out in the shop, the techs tease me that they had to bring in the D team. And I always laugh and say, you mean for dynamite, right? But in the beginning, I did everything. Fixed cars, road estimates, cleaned the bathroom, raised money, worked with customers, all while working another two jobs to try to pay the bills and get some car skills.

CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh. What a woman? OK. So the demand obviously is really strong, and but I'm curious, who are the customers?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK. So by the way, she was able to come on as a paid employee after 15 months, and they moved to their current location with its 5 bays in 2018 and they also rent 2 additional bays in Saint Paul. So the customer requirements are simple. Must live in Minnesota, most-- no surprise here, Cathy-- are from the Metro area, although some come from places like Albertville, Rochester, and Pine City.

Customer income must be at 150% of the federal poverty level. And to give you an idea what that means, that's about $22,000 a year or less for a single household and $37,000 a year or less for a household of three. And they must be able to get their car to the shop. And they only do the kind of repairs that keep a car running and safe. And by the way, you mentioned that demand was strong. The Lift is currently booked out about 6 and 1/2 months.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, wow. OK. So if you called today, you'd probably have to wait till, what? Sometime in June to get the car in?


CATHY WURZER: Wow. OK. Well, that obviously underscores the big need, though.

CHRIS FARRELL: Absolutely. And customers pay $15 for labor and receive parts at cost. And this money doesn't, by the way, come even close to covering the cost of repairs, let alone, as we were talking earlier, the cost of all that equipment. So about 12% of the revenue comes from customers, and then more than half from individual donations, and the remainder is mostly grants, money from foundations, corporate partnerships.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So hey, let's talk about the young person that you met, one of the technicians. Because I mean, gosh, I am kind of a car person and try to get your car in, I mean, there's worker shortages. So how are they finding the technicians for this particular nonprofit?

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, like every small business I've talked to and you've talked to, I mean, it is hard to find skilled workers. Her auto technicians are all ASC certified, which stands for Automotive Service Excellence. She says it's a struggle to find them, but they stay because they like the mission.

CATHY HEYING: It's a little bit of a different culture than I think a traditional auto repair shop is in lots of ways and our mission is different. And so the folks who are working here say they want to be here because they really, really want to do something meaningful and with purpose with the skill set that they have.

CHRIS FARRELL: And she also has people working at the front desk, and their job can be tough. I mean, the customers they deal with they're understandably stressed out because their car has broken down.

CATHY HEYING: My joke, which has a strong line of truth in it, is we're social workers, and resource specialists, and grief counselors, and financial counselors, and then we fix cars on the side.

CATHY WURZER: Say, does The Lift Garage have plans to continue expanding and growing?

CHRIS FARRELL: Yeah. I get the sense she's always thinking about creative ways to expand. And one initiative she talked about is she's having conversations with for-profit shops to see what would it take for them to, say, take five cars a month and charge the same rates as Lift. And they're also constantly trying to figure out how to speed up how many cars they can repair, yet at the same time they can't abandon their core values for efficiency.

CATHY HEYING: We're trying to strike that balance between how do we get more efficient where we can without losing the hospitality, and the dignity, and the kindness, and the presence that we're trying to offer. In that same vein, like if somebody is living in their vehicle and we need to keep their car overnight for repairs, we have a fund that we pay to put them up in a hotel.

So we will Uber them to a hotel and pay for it, and then Uber them back the next day when their car is done. So again, it's so much more than car repair that does eat into the efficiency stuff some, but it allows us to be present with people.

CATHY WURZER: So obviously, what she does underscore is the need for a functioning car. But here Chris, I'm wondering if you all had a chance to talk about just the larger solution. If you can't have a car, I mean, I wonder if this is underscoring the need for much better public transportation system than we have.

CHRIS FARRELL: Boy, Cathy, I had the exact same thought. And she is an advocate for a more comprehensive approach to addressing poverty, and including a better public transportation network. And she really wishes people understood that there's only so much individuals can do when they're living on low and unstable incomes. We need more collective and more comprehensive solutions.

CATHY HEYING: Transportation, it's crucial for all of us whether we live in poverty or not. And although the Twin Cities is getting better about public transit, and I mean if you're going to one of the downtowns, you can generally make that work depending on where you live. But if you're trying to-- if you live in Woodbury and your job is in Golden Valley, it's sort of a nightmare to try to make that happen while you're also balancing kids, and daycare pickups, and groceries, and everything else.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting story. Chris Farrell, thanks for bringing her story to us.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thanks a lot, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Chris Farrell, MPR's senior economics contributor.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.