MBEP Member Spotlight: Santa Cruz Community Credit Union: Making a Difference by Building Community for All

Credit unions, by their nature, are good for communities.

They help people save and invest for the future, offer tools for building businesses or buying cars, and create paths to financial empowerment.

Santa Cruz Community Credit Union goes a step beyond. Of the 5,300 credit unions in the U.S., it’s one of just a few hundred banking organizations focused on social justice.

Designation as a community development financial institution means that Santa Cruz Community Credit Union is focused on serving those often left out of traditional banking services, explains Santa Cruz Community Credit Union Executive Vice President Richard W. Cooper. It’s part of a small group of Juntos Avanzamos (Together We Advance)  community development financial institutions focused on low-income, minority, immigrant, and largely marginalized populations.

“We provide the traditional banking services but we reach out to folks that otherwise might not be served,” said Cooper.

So while the not-for-profit financial cooperative offers traditional banking services – checking and savings accounts, SBA loans and commercial real estate loans,  money market accounts and CDs – it also has financing products less typical for traditional financial institutions: DACA loans, low-rate mobile home loans, startup business loans, and a Get Green Loan program that covers anything from solar PV and solar thermal installation to rainwater collection systems and clean cars.

Since its opening in June 1977, it has helped fund local businesses from bakeries to breweries and small manufacturing firms. “We provide financing for small entrepreneurs to get them on their feet,” said Cooper. “We work with a variety of resources to get them counseling if they’re struggling with their business plan or financing, so they can realize their dreams and be independent.”

The difference Santa Cruz Community Credit Union makes can’t be underestimated: Members who were previously wary of financial institutions or who used to stash their money away at home, sometimes in a mattress, have opened their first savings account, taken out car loans to purchase reliable vehicles, or learned to responsibly manage credit. As such, financial literacy education, often on a one-on-one basis, plays a big role at Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, which offers basic money management workshops for free for members and through partnerships with Diamond Technology Institute, Homeless Garden Project, Youth N.O.W., the Diversity Center and a growing list of schools and organizations.

“Financial services are all about scale, and one of the problems that we see in the world today is that our largest financial institutions have grown beyond the communities that they serve,” said Cooper. “Those large banks are needed for those big projects — the infrastructure, the skyscrapers. What a credit union of our size provides is the scale that matches our community. We make sure we serve others who otherwise wouldn’t be served, and we welcome folks who wouldn’t feel comfortable going elsewhere.”

Community-building partnerships with El Pájaro Community Development Corp. and  Community Action Board further support its mission, as does a recent grant awarded to Community Bridges to provide computers and computer literacy to low-income individuals. 

Overseeing it all is a volunteer board of directors, “people from the community who see value in what our credit union does,” said Cooper, “who give of their time, and who are committed to making the region better.”

For its programs and service, Santa Cruz Community Credit Union is the recipient of the national Louise Herring Award for Philosophy in Action.

These days, Santa Cruz Community Credit Union has 13,500 members in Santa Cruz County and north Monterey County, with branch offices in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, and Soquel.

“We’re that entry-level place,” said Cooper, “helping the folks that otherwise wouldn’t get help, and working to grow those people. In Santa Cruz, where houses cost a million dollars, we’ll still finance a mobile home for a buyer with an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number).”