Large commercial banks have been getting press as the bad guys of the mortgage industry. Some critics have cited them for being partly responsible for the recent collapse of the mortgage market. From the looks of things, it would seem as if these bankers would be sulking with their tails between their legs. But they're not. While ordinary Americans are jobless and stifled by a 10 percent unemployment rate, employees of U.S. banks and hedge funds are being rewarded with 4 percent increases in salaries and bonuses.

If you'd like to see what a community alternative to big banks might be like, visit your local credit union. Northern California residents are getting mortgage and banking services at their very own San Francisco Federal Credit Union (SFFCU).

What's a credit union?

The most significant difference between a regular bank and a credit union is that the latter is a not-for-profit institution that's member-owned. People pool their deposits; then, that money is loaned to the very same members. Because of their independent nature, credit unions typically offer lower mortgage rates, higher interest on savings accounts, and lower service fees.

Unlike a publicly-owned bank, which is controlled by a paid board of directors, a credit union is governed by a volunteer board, which is elected by and from the membership. Every member gets a vote, no matter how much or how little money he has on deposit with the bank.

The Best $5 Ever Spent

If you live, work, or go to school in San Francisco, or are a family member of someone who does, you're eligible to join the San Francisco Federal Credit Union. All you have to do is pay a one-time fee of $5.00 and deposit a minimum of $5.00 in a savings account. (There's probably no more valuable use for a Lincoln-faced bill anywhere in the country.) Once you're a member, you'll have access to all their products, including mortgages, home equity loans, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), car and personal loans, and credit cards.

Community investment

Credit unions are committed to providing financial education, as well. The San Francisco Credit Union, for example, offers its members a free one-time consultation with a financial planner to help discuss their financial goals. They also offer hardship assistance if you're having trouble making your mortgage payment, free credit reports, and access to financial calculators and identity fraud tips. In addition, they partner with professional groups to help you with your financial fitness, and offer a consumer website with financial tips.

Staying true to their mission, the SFFCU places a high value on giving back to the community. In June 2010, members served as volunteers to revitalize the Panhandle Playground, and transformed dead leaves and weeds into flowering gardens. Members also participate in a variety of charity events to raise money for community organizations throughout the area.

So what does Rice-A-Roni and the SFFCU have in common? Each can claim to be the San Francisco treat.

Published on November 15, 2006