On the left side of the building, a wall is covered with black-and-white photographs of labor and civil rights activists Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and historic institutions like the Food Processors Credit Union and the Seaway National Bank of Chicago, among other notable figures. The words on the wall read “We lend. We build. We serve.”
On the opposite side are the doors to a large-capacity meeting room that is available to nonprofit groups and other community members at no cost.
This is Self-Help Federal Credit Union’s Oak Park branch at 6011 W. North Ave. At this location, which opened earlier this year, the branch is poised to serve individuals and families in surrounding Chicago communities like Austin, Galewood and Belmont Cragin.
“We’re a full-service financial institution,” Roman Ruiz, branch manager, said, adding this new location will allow them to serve Black and Hispanic communities that have been “overlooked” by financial institutions or have been damaged by predatory lenders.
As a federal credit union, it offers affordable financial services to its members and is designed to serve working families and communities that have historically faced systemic barriers to financial inclusion.
Members can open checking and savings accounts and have access to home mortgage loans, personal loans, credit cards and individual retirement accounts, among other products that may not be available to them at commercial banks.
“We want to make sure that we’re working and helping Black and Brown communities, rural residents, women,” said Ruiz of the credit union’s philosophy. “We’re all about giving access to individuals that would not normally have that access.”
Any individual can become a member through a one-time $5 fee, gaining access to all services and products offered by Self-Help Federal Credit Union.
“I think one of the largest differences is a finance institute typically is owned by investors whereas a credit union is owned by the membership,” Daniel Martinez, director of mortgage origination, said. As a result, he said, members “speak volumes” into determining what products they want the credit union to offer.
For starters, opening a checking account is more feasible as the credit union has no minimum balance to open and maintain a personal account and keeps service fees affordable. Several types of savings accounts are also available, with some starting with a minimum deposit of $5.
In its mission to expand economic opportunity, the credit union has designed specific products that help its members buy a home and are not as common in the financial marketplace.
“We are breaking down barriers to home ownership because we understand that home ownership is the primary vehicle through which individuals can build wealth,” Ruiz said.
One of these products is the equity boost home loans, which stands out for being a mortgage that requires 0% down payment, finances up to 5% of closing costs of the home purchase and requires a minimum credit score of 580, among other requirements.
These terms help many of the homebuyers the credit union serves overcome the barriers to home ownership, such as low credit scores, insufficient savings for a down payment or insufficient funds to cover the closing costs of a home purchase.
“We’re not here just to create an opportunity for you to get a mortgage,” Kimberly Adams, mortgage loan originator, said, explaining that through other products, homebuyers can access financial resources needed to maintain their home, make improvements or pay for unexpected repairs.
The credit union also offers mortgage and personal loans to self-employed individuals.
“We are creating home ownership and sustainability, and how we’re able to do that is to offer personal loans and improvement loans,” she said, “as opposed to you own a home, now you’re on your own.”
As it recently opened in the area, the credit union has garnered interest from people who stop by to ask what a credit union does or are looking for personal loans, Ruiz said.
“What we’re seeing is individuals coming back because they heard about our credit building loan,” Ruiz said.
Popular among credit union members in the Cicero branch, which serves many Latino communities, the credit building loan helps individuals build or fix their credit history.
Also known as the “tanda loan,” a Spanish word in reference to an informal savings scheme popular in the Latino communities. In a “tanda,” friends and family get together once a week to pool together a portion of their paychecks and rotate getting the accumulated sum for the week, allowing them to save more money than they would traditionally be able to.
Similarly, the credit building loan helps individuals access a certain amount of money in a savings account after they complete recurrent payments that add up to the requested amount.
‘Imagine you come in and you get the loan, and you say, ‘I want $1,000 and I want to pay it off in 12 months,’” Ruiz said. “So, what we’ll do is we’ll put $1,000 and we’ll put in a savings account for you, so you don’t have to come up with $1,000.”
“So, you’re making your payments every month and we’re reporting that payment to the credit bureaus. So, by the time you get to that 12 payment, we now release the funds and we say, here’s your $1,000.”
“You had a full year of credit that was being reported, so now you have money and you have good credit,” he said.
Lauro Sinchi Chamba, a member of Self-Help Federal Credit Union, first learned about the credit union because of the “tanda loan.”
“They helped me improve my credit so that I could buy a home,” he told the Austin Weekly News in Spanish, adding staff members helped him understand how credit works.
In its new location, as well as other locations, Self-Help Federal Credit Union offers marketing and informative resources in Spanish and has onsite bilingual staff.
Last week, he completed the purchase of his home through a mortgage loan from Self-Help Credit Union. He said he improved his credit score through personal loans that helped him buy furniture for his new home. He was never late on his payments, he said, and now he has a home with two units, one where he will live and one he will rent.
Historically, at other Self Help Credit Union branches entering a new community, consumer lending is one of the initial most-sought products, which helps individuals build credit and further access loans that could help them purchase a car or a home.
“We start noticing as individuals start building credit on getting credit builder loans, personal loans, credit cards then after they start going to bigger loans [like] small personal loans, car loans and then once you’re successful, they’re motivated to purchase a home,” Martinez said.
The credit union’s staff also plays an important role in educating members on financial literacy, Martinez said.
“Sometimes we have to go and explain some things to our members, [for example] exactly what LTV is, why it’s important to keep it low, why is it important to have their debt-to-income ratio low, why is it important to take care of their credit,” he said. “We walk our customers throughout the entire process.”
Part of that process includes explaining the risks of irresponsibly using credit cards or loans.
“We need to make sure that we let them know, because this could be a blessing, but it could also be a curse if not used correctly,” Ruiz said. “And that’s where we pride ourselves, in the fact that we’re able to extend that knowledge.”
Staff can also refer individuals in need, who may not qualify for all of the financial products they need, to nonprofits who could provide immediate assistance, Ruiz said. For example, if an individual is in need of housing and is not qualified for a mortgage loan, they can be referred to a nonprofit that provides housing services.
Collaboration with other nonprofits, in some branches and the Oak Park branch, is important as the credit union opens its doors to host community-focused events that benefit all residents.
At the North Avenue branch, nonprofits can use the large conference room to host events or meetings at no cost, or use the outdoor plaza featuring fountains, a pergola and garden spaces, to host events.
In July, they will host home ownership education sessions where real estate brokers and home buyers share information about the process of buying a home.
“This is truly a space that that we’re eager to see the incredible things that our community partners are going to do because we want there to be more resources for our members, but also the residents of this community,” Ruiz said.