Asheville credit union works to improve economic mobility

The merger of the Self-Help and United Services credit unions means that come July 1, members of both institutions will be able to access their accounts at nearly two dozen branches across the region. Both organizations are member-owned nonprofits.

It’s the latest step by Self-Help to expand its presence across a market where bank lending remains selective, says Regional Director Jane Hatley, a former longtime loan officer there. “People are still hurting,” she notes, adding that Self-Help has made businesses loans for as little as $500.

Announced last October, the merger came after United Services had spent about a year and a half in negotiations with other credit unions in Western North Carolina. “We were looking to partner up with folks who have a similar vision as ours,” says CEO Bill Carrington. United Services has about 11,000 members and seven locations, most of them in WNC. The merger did not result in any layoffs or branch closures by either organization.

Under the agreement, United Services will change its name to Self-Help; signs at its branches will be changed in the coming months. In 2009, Self-Help merged with the Carolina Mountains Credit Union, which had about 7,000 members at the time. That institution will also now bear Self-Help’s name.

Carrington says Self-Help has a “more in-depth” approach, citing the $44 million in loans the organization has made over the past 25 years in the Asheville area alone. In addition to small businesses, recipients have included child and community care centers and multifamily housing developments.

Chartered by the state in 1980, Self-Help is an arm of the nonprofit Center for Community Self-Help, a Durham-based advocacy and financial organization. The credit union has since grown to include nearly 60,000 members across North Carolina.

When Self-Help opened a regional office in Asheville in the late ’80s, says Hatley, it was instrumental in spurring economic revitalization, offering loans to startups such as the French Broad Food Co-op, which went on to become fixtures in the local business landscape. The credit union has also played a role in West Asheville’s economic vibrancy, she notes.

Environmental sustainability has since emerged as one of the credit union’s focal points: In 2012 the organization established a $15 million fund in Asheville to help finance energy-efficiency projects with low-interest loans.

One of the recipients was FLS Energy, an Asheville-based company that builds, owns and operates utility-scale solar farms across the Southeast. “When you’re starting out and trying to get going … it’s a great resource,” notes company spokesman Frank Marshall. FLS — short for Forward-Looking Sustainable Energy — used the loan to help finance projects in eastern North Carolina, he reports.

As a community development financial institution, Self-Help must meet certain investment standards, using federal grants and tax credits to support demographics such as minorities and those at the lower end of the income spectrum or in underserved areas. For example, the credit union offers 12-month loans to “DREAMers” — undocumented immigrants brought to this country at an early age — to help them apply for a federal program granting a two-year reprieve from potential deportation.

To many financial institutions, such policies might seem too risky. But at Self-Help, they’ve come to define themselves in terms of the organization’s efforts to help clients become more upwardly mobile economically.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Hatley declares, asserting that neither income level nor socio-economic status has any bearing on whether borrowers repay their loans.


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