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Greenville Business Magazine

Self-Help Credit Union Receives Key Certification, Plans Charleston Expansion

Aug 11, 2023 12:05PM ● By David Caraviello

By David Caraviello

On the heels of receiving a certification that burnished its reputation for affordability, Self-Help Credit Union has secured locations in Summerville and Mount Pleasant that will become its first physical branches in the Lowcountry.

The financial institution headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, currently has four locations in the Greenville area and two in Columbia. 

Kerri Smith, Self-Help’s regional president for South Carolina, said the credit union had purchased the former SunTrust location on Main Street in Summerville, and the former BB&T branch on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. 

The Summerville branch will open first, she added, coming online in roughly 18 months.

“The reason we’re coming into the area is because of the need,” Smith said, referring to the stark housing inequality issues facing the greater Charleston area. “We know Charleston has a great challenge, and access to home ownership is hard. We know affordable housing is an issue. And we do a lot of lending around affordable housing.”

Founded in 1980, Self-Help Credit Union primarily serves customers who have been pushed out of traditional financial services or are completely unbanked — largely women, people of color, and those rural or low-wealth communities. 

The credit union recently learned that its checking account had been certified by the national Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE) Fund as meeting Bank On National Account Standards, which verifies qualities such as low monthly fees and no overdraft or non-sufficient fund fees.

Why is that certification so important? “Since so much of our mission is about economic opportunities, we know that bank fees and features can drain off thousands of dollars from folks who can least afford it,” Smith said. “And just like doing away with (non-sufficient fund) fees, we don't believe that folks should be necessarily penalized in that way.”

‘A pretty stringent process’

The certification was about six months in the making, Smith said. The certifying body, the CFE Fund, provides funding and assistance to municipalities to improve the financial stability of low and moderate income households. 

Bank On National Account Standards identify product features at bank or credit unions that make it easier for those financial institutions to connect consumers to accounts meeting their needs.

“The Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund is delighted to award its national Bank On account certification to Self-Help’s checking account,” Jonathan Mintz, president and CEO of the CFE Fund, said in a news release announcing the certification. 

Mintz added, “The account offers residents who are looking to improve their finances a safe, affordable, and truly useful mainstream banking product to access and manage their money. Self-Help’s offering of this terrific account brings them into the forefront of national banking access efforts, and we thank them.”

Added Randy Chambers, president Self-Help Credit Union: “The Bank On certification will help us reach individuals in our communities who need it most. It complements the fair, affordable banking solutions programs we offer that are designed to help improve the financial well-being of communities often left out of the economic mainstream, including financial wellness, credit building services and free financial education and coaching.”

During the certification process, Smith said the CFE Fund examined monthly service fees, minimum balance requirements, and whether customers earn interest, among other factors. 

The Self-Help Credit Union checking account has no minimum balance requirement, Smith added, and the $5 monthly fee can be waived if customers have at least $500 direct-deposited. 

Self-Help also offers a “second chance” account for those who have faced financial challenges in the past.

“It takes a lot of work to get certified,” Smith said. “It’s a pretty stringent process that they put financial institutions through.”

Aiming for $5 million to lend

Nowhere in the Palmetto State is the affordable home crisis more acute than in the Charleston area, which faces both low inventory and a median sales price of $407,500, according to June figures (the most recent available) from S.C. Realtors. 

By comparison, the median sales price is $311,524 in greater Greenville, and $280,000 in metro Columbia. The Charleston area in June also had just 169 available homes priced at $250,000 or below.

“We know there's a lot of disparity in the wealth gap,” Smith said. “And the racial wealth gap, unfortunately, we're not seeing a decline. It's either staying steady, or the gap is getting greater.”

Self-Help Credit Union has partners in the Charleston area, Smith added, that it plans to work with in the areas of financial education and fair lending. 

The credit union has mortgage loans available for those with credit scores as low as 580, and can use things like cell phone bills and rental histories to verify credit. 

It also allows layering of down payment assistance, in which customers can stack funding received from an employer or other entity on top of what they can obtain from Self-Help.

Smith said Self-Help will initially have around seven employees split between its two Charleston locations. The credit union is also working to raise $5 million in deposits that it can lend to Charleston-area customers once its new Lowcountry branches open.

“We’re looking to nonprofits, churches, businesses and folks who are interested in making a deposit so that we'll have money to lend,” Smith said. “We're working also with a couple of nonprofits here that help people rebuild credit and get into homeownership. We want to start doing mortgages here, but we've got to have money deposited here to start lending.”