CommunityWorks may be the best-kept secret in town.
Tammie Hoy Hawkins intends to change that – just as the organization she leads changes the Upstate, one person, one business, one organization at a time.
Greenville boasts a robust real estate market and dozens of financial institutions. But not every business, not every prospective homeowner, can access what they need through traditional resources. Some are left behind completely.
CommunityWorks aims to fill in the gaps – as a lender.
“We’re a bank with a heart,” says Hawkins, who has been president and CEO of CommunityWorks for 15 months.
She laughs, conceding that bankers have hearts, too. But CommunityWorks is more flexible. “We look at risk. We look at all those things that a bank looks at. But in many cases, we’re doing character lending,” Hawkins says.
“We’re asking, ‘Have you traditionally paid your rent?’ ‘Have you paid things that matter?’ Your credit score may be low. We understand. You’ve got medical debt. You’ve got school debt,” she explains.
Founded in 2008, CommunityWorks’ mission is to help South Carolina’s underserved families and communities build a better financial future.
The organization fosters financial stability by offering relatively small loans to start-up and existing businesses, assisting individuals and families who want to buy homes, and providing financial backing for developers building affordable housing.
Coaching and other education programs promote sound financial habits for those who receive loan – and those trying to qualify for them.
In the background, Hawkins and her 18-member staff advocate for economic and social equity.
“We provide equitable access to capital and financial services that many individuals in our community can’t access through traditional means – particularly people and communities of color that have been denied these resources in the past,” Hawkins says.
Many clients, about 63% of whom are African American and about 68% women, don’t have traditional banking relationships. Others have had bad experiences with payday-type lenders.
“They have lost trust in the banking community, for reasons related to historic systemic issues,” Hawkins explains.
For Hawkins, those issues strike close to home. The only child of a single mother, Hawkins left her hometown in Indiana and headed south, where she worked her way through the College of Charleston.
An internship put her on the path to community development work and also highlighted systemic and institutional barriers that create poverty. “It was eye-opening at an early age.”
She says she was deeply disturbed by the racism and segregation she perceived in the South. She even considered leaving.
“I thought I needed to go somewhere more liberal,” she says. “But I had a great mentor who said, ‘If people like you – who care about these issues, who care about changing the community – if you leave, you’re abandoning the mission.’”
Today, armed with 20 years of experience, she leads an organization that aims to break down barriers to financial equity.
But, Hawkins stresses, commercial banks aren’t the enemy.
“Our goal is to compliment the financial institutions,” Hawkins says. “Instead of telling a startup entrepreneur, ‘No, we can’t help you,’ they can say, ‘Talk to our partner, CommunityWorks.’”
CommunityWorks is funded through loan fees and interest, like more traditional financial institutions, but also by investments, grants, and private donations – often from banks.
“Banks invest in us, so we can turn around and lend to organizations or individuals that are too risky for banks,” she says.
New programs are launched to fill needs – PPP loans and COVID-19 relief efforts; the Women’s Business Center, opened in June; and, recently, the Neighborhood Small Business Initiative, a cooperative effort to support minority- and women-owned businesses near Unity Park.
“Female- and, specifically, Black female-led businesses are the fastest-growing businesses right now,” Hawkins says.
Business loans are typically $5,000 to $250,000. A loan might kick-start a business or be the last bit of funding needed to finish a project.
“We’re working with people who say, ‘I’ve got this brilliant idea. How do I make it come into fruition?’” Hawkins calls them “back of the napkin ideas.”
“They’re the ones sitting down with the coaches,” she says. “If you access credit with us, you have a coach forever.”
As for homebuyers, CommunityWorks can provide loans of $4,000 to $5,000 – usually for part of a down payment or fees associated with a mortgage from a traditional lender.
A builder or remodeler or an organization working on affordable housing can borrow up to $750,000.
“I am very passionate about creating access to housing opportunities,” Hawkins says. “I always say, ‘Jobs go home somewhere to spend the night.’ And where they go home, it matters.”
The person who waits tables Downtown, mows lawns, or works behind a coffee counter can’t necessarily afford to live near their job.
“Affordable is relative, and there is a stigma surrounding affordable housing. That’s for ‘those’ people. In many cases, talking about ‘those’ people can be very discriminatory,” she says.
“The reality is, it’s me. I grew up in public housing. My mom worked, but she worked as a waitress. So, what was affordable to her is very different than what’s affordable for a business executive.”
Change starts with the political will to change, she says.
“It’s important to say, ‘We care about all people in our community. We want to make sure that they have safe, quality housing choices,’” Hawkins says. “That’s No. 1.”
CommunityWorks has generated more than $221 million in economic impact locally and helped 6,000 families, according to the non-profit’s website. It has loaned $5 million to small businesses and $10 million to affordable housing projects that have created or preserved about 1,300 housing units.
“If we’re going to have a better South Carolina and a better Greenville, we have to provide opportunities for everyone, whether that be affordable housing choices or access to small business opportunities,” Hawkins says.
Married to attorney John Hawkins (of “HawkLaw” fame) – the CEO of CommunityWorks says she gets a healthy dose of teasing at home.
“My husband says, ‘You’re going to be pushing the boulder up the hill again today, aren’t you?’”
She wears the mantle proudly: “One house, one person, one business at a time, just pushing it up the hill.”
“I come to work every day knowing that we’re creating economic justice and economic opportunities for everyone. That’s what I wake up thinking every morning.”