South Carolina Affordable Housing Lender Expands Mission to Address Healthy Food Access
January 20, 2014 | Susan Botich
Why would an established affordable housing lending institution decide to change its name?
“Lowcountry Housing Trust has been the South Carolina leader in affordable housing lending,” says Anna Hamilton, strategic initiatives director for the organization. “As we worked under our previous name of Lowcountry Housing Trust, we thought that we’d really love to see a grocery store here or a daycare there. To realize our vision of a sustainable community, we added community business loans and healthy foods retail loans. We believe our new name, South Carolina Community Loan Fund says what we really do because our mission had evolved to more than just affordable housing.”
Hamilton says CLF looks at food sources in the community and questions whether a business provides access to healthy foods. Businesses that do provide that access, according to Hamilton, are typically farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and food coops.
“In a lot of our communities, we saw that they had access to food, but not healthy food,” says Hamilton. “When talking about these areas within our community, we use the term ‘food deserts’ or ‘food swamps’ because there is food available but it isn’t healthy food. We define ‘healthy foods’ as fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy.”
The USDA defines a food desert as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food,” according to its website. CLF uses this definition as its guideline and encourages healthy foods projects because the people behind the institution believe that for a community to be economically healthy, its people need to be in good physical health, says Hamilton.
“We’re very happy with our first ‘healthy food’ project,” Hamilton says. “There were local farmers who had a roadside stand, but they also wanted to have a market. We helped them to get the loan that allowed them to refurbish the old city hall in Beaufort. They still have their roadside stand but now, they also have the downtown market, and they have mail order.”
To determine whether a business will meet the definition of a “healthy food source,” the borrower must do more than just paperwork, according to Hamilton.
“Typically, our staff meets with the borrower; we learn about what they are trying to do,” she says. “We talk to them about their business plan and ascertain whether they have support from the community; will the community shop there? We work with the applicant and provide technical assistance, when needed, so that they have a strong loan application that we can defend in front of our loan committee. Once we feel the application is ready, it goes to our business loan committee.”
The loan committee is comprised of lawyers and representatives of various financial institutions as well as a representative of the local Small Business Development Center, which operates under the authority of the Small Business Administration, according to Hamilton.
“We present the loan and we let the borrower know if it’s been approved,” Hamilton says. “The take-away is that it’s a thorough process. We want to make sure that their business will be successful; we lend to strong, viable businesses that have the potential to stay in the community.”
Though the primary function of CLF is as a lender, the organization also supports healthy foods initiatives in its South Carolina communities through advocacy work, says Hamilton.
“In 2012, Lowcountry Housing Trust hosted a conference about the economic food deserts and out of that, a South Carolina task force was created,” Hamilton says. “The work of that task force will culminate to support healthy food access in those areas. We’re being a voice for that issue.”
CLF receives funding from government grants, foundation grants, the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, and banks and corporations, according to Hamilton.
There are challenges to realizing CLF’s goal of healthy food access in all of South Carolina’s low to moderate income communities, says Hamilton.
“Educating the communities on how this will be economically advantageous is one of them,” Hamilton says. “There’s a lot of advocacy work, working with other groups in the state to raise awareness around the issue of access to healthy food, and putting ourselves out there as a voice for this issue.”