Diversity Insight: How the Community Development Financial Institution and Impact Lending Team Adds Value

asian business woman at work in her shop
Heather Horovitz Photo
SVP/CDFI and Impact Lending
VyStar Credit Union

5 minutes

Collaborations across Vystar help the credit union serve more members better and deliver on its core value to lead by example.

At VyStar Credit Union, we are committed to being a reflection of the communities we serve. In pursuit of that goal, we have focused on initiatives that create a strong sense of belonging for individuals and families across the places the credit union calls home. As a community-focused credit union, VyStar CU’s priority is to meet our members where they are and find solutions that help improve their financial lives. One of the keys to those efforts is our community development financial institution and impact lending team.

CDFI Status and a Collaborative Culture

Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, VyStar has a strong presence in the city and is involved with many local organizations and government affairs. Chief Lending Officer Jenny Vipperman, a CUES member, led our team on its journey to becoming a CDFI more than two years ago. She believes this is an initiative that allows credit unions to strengthen the way they serve their members and communities. It also encourages credit unions to be intentional and dedicated to the work, which needs to come from all levels of the credit union to ensure the authenticity of the work a CDFI team does. 

I was tasked with spearheading VyStar’s efforts on CDFI and community lending, working alongside my peers in each lending vertical: consumer, commercial, real estate and loan administration. This collaborative culture allowed us to exceed our goals in a short time with the continued focus on developing innovative loan products and programs that will be rolled out early this year. These products and programs will add to those launched in 2022, which are already making an impact in the lives of individuals within the communities that VyStar serves. SVP/Real Estate Lending Jennifer Kouchis describes the partnership as “a meaningful advancement for VyStar’s commitment to impactful lending and financial inclusion.”

“The entire team strongly believes in access to capital for all,” Kouchis says. “At VyStar, we live out the values of credit unions in every way, putting our members first and joining them in their financial journey with a commitment to financial stability and helping our community members realize their dreams like growing a business or owning a home and building generational wealth.”

We have already created such initiatives for this mission as supporting minority business owners, developing a suite of workforce development loans and creating partnerships with local affordable housing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity Jacksonville (HabiJax). The partnership with HabiJax offers financing at terms that are attainable to ensure repayment is affordable, increasing the odds of homeownership for future generations.  

“The collaborative relationship we have with our CDFI team aligns with our mission of bringing credit union services to more members,” says Dennis James, SVP/consumer lending and a CUES member. “Providing access to credit at competitive terms and helping our members build financial wealth with an inclusive approach are critical to healthy communities.” 

CDFI Lending in Action

Shortly after we received our CDFI designation, VyStar was introduced to the Homeowner Assistance Fund. HAF is designed to mitigate financial hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic by preventing homeowners’ mortgage delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures and displacements, as well as providing assistance with home energy services, internet, and property and/or flood insurance. HAF provides $676,102,379 in financial assistance to the state of Florida through the United States Department of the Treasury. SVP/Loan Administration Eric Weatherly says “upon engagement and partnership with the Department of Economic Opportunity and HAF, VyStar has successfully helped our members retain homes, (and) mitigate(d) significant delinquencies and loan losses. In doing so, we live out our purpose to do good.” 

As part of VyStar CU’s long-term commitment to supporting the development and revitalization of underserved communities across our field of membership, we participated in the 2022 round of the CDFI Fund’s New Market Tax Credit Program. Created in 2000, the NMTC Program is a $5 billion annual federal program that supports a wide range of businesses, including manufacturing, food, retail, mixed-use housing, health care, education and energy. SVP/Commercial Lending David Walton describes the program as “an opportunity for VyStar to execute on commercial projects that might not otherwise qualify but are critical to the revitalization of our most distressed communities.”

“We are excited for the opportunity to marry our community-focused lending with the support of CDFI funding to further the impact we have in the communities we serve,” Walton adds. 

The team is committed to providing fair and responsible financing to a wide range of groups that traditional financing can often overlook. It continues to focus on serving these individuals as well as supporting low-income individuals, minority business owners and many others in distressed communities. In the future, new market tax credits will be an important part of the solution set, as they will help attract private investment opportunities to subsidize costs in these communities.

Impact lending is more important than ever before. Minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and other challenges in recent years. VyStar has innovative products and solutions that not only help businesses and communities survive but thrive. We want to be a leader in addressing the challenges in each major lending category, including affordable housing, access to capital for minority and women-owned businesses, and consumer lending.

Community Development Financial Institution and Impact Lending Team Connects to VyStar Core Value

The CDFI team upholds VyStar’s core value to lead by example. It’s what drives us to embrace being more than a traditional financial institution. As VyStar has grown and its members and communities have become more diverse, we have worked to better define and display diversity, equity and inclusion. Creating a strong workplace culture is integral to the success of the credit union. That’s why we empower our talented employees, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.

Being more than a traditional financial institution requires the courage to step forward and become a trailblazer while challenging others to do the same. The CDFI team’s work is done with the mindset of inspiring others. We are proud to highlight its action in support of the credit union movement’s motto of “people helping people.”

I am excited for the future and growth of CDFI and impact lending. I am so proud of all the work the team has accomplished so far, but their efforts are just beginning. There is still much work to be done for all of us. Our credit union will continue to lead through conversations, community support and taking action to build stronger and healthier neighborhoods VyStar serves.

Heather Horovitz serves as SVP/CDFI and impact lending for $13.5 billion VyStar Credit Union, Jacksonville, Florida. In this role, she engages across the organization and with external partners to meet the needs of diverse communities. These efforts focus on offering products that are attainable for people with low to medium income and investing in projects that bring services like food and healthcare to VyStar’s community. She was recently appointed to the board of the Jacksonville Housing Authority where she serves as chair of the finance and acquisition committees, and to the board of the North Florida School of Special Education.

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