CDFI certification brings well deserved recognition and support to the community finance work that Fairfax County FCU has done in its fifty plus year history. The credit union was originally intended to serve employees in Fairfax County and has since expanded its membership. Today, Fairfax County FCU is situated in a demographic paradox; the county is one of the wealthiest in the nation, yet 70% of the credit union’s nearly 15,000 members qualify as low income. The credit union’s evolution into a CDFI began with a decision to respond to significant changes in membership by tailoring services to meet the needs of the rapidly growing number of Hispanic members. In 2009, the credit union decided to apply for CDFI certification to further these programs.
In 2011 the credit union received a $1.5 million CDFI Financial Assistance grant to support their First Mortgage Program, which gave the credit union a cushion to take on more risk. Under the program, mortgages were made accessible to members by allowing more flexibility in the application process. For example, the credit union accepted lower down payments, offered lower interest than typically dictated by the LTV, allowed more flexible employment requirements, and in some cases waived closing fees. Since receiving the CDFI grant, total assets have grown by $33.7 million and loans have increased by $50.7 million, with 77% of their loans held by low-income members.
Fairfax also increased its accessibility to Hispanic members with additional support from the National Credit Union Foundation. The credit union partnered with local Spanish speaking media outlets to both promote their existing products (like discounted international wire services) and to lead small financial education shows. Fairfax also increased its accessibility by hiring bilingual staff and incorporating bilingual technology in its branch. For credit union CEO Joe Thomas, the key to brand recognition is being ready to meet the needs of members for specific services, such as auto loans. “You have to be there when the need is created,” says Thomas. Fairfax County FCU also participates in the Federation’s Better Directions program and received a grant to increase the outreach and financial literacy to low-income older adults.
For Thomas, one of the biggest benefits of CDFI certification was the acknowledgement of their existing community work from the Department of Treasury. According to Thomas, CDFI certification is something “members can grasp” and realize that their credit union “passed a hurdle that’s recognized”. Both the financial and symbolic support casts Fairfax in a new light, while also formalizing Fairfax’s ongoing commitment to its community. “Every credit union that qualifies as low-income should go for CDFI,” says Thomas. “It’s not an exhaustive process, and it opens doors”.