Employers Use Housing Perks to Recruit, Retain Workers

With housing costs exploding across the country, “affordable housing” has taken on a whole new meaning.

The term used to be associated with low-income housing, but no more. The middle class - firefighters, teachers, police officers, nurses, sales clerks and more - are increasingly unable to afford homes in the communities where they work.

Employers are turning to housing benefits in growing numbers to attract talent and keep the workers they have, USA Today reported.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 20 percent of employers helped workers with mortgages or down payments in 2004, up from 9 percent four years ago. Rental assistance was offered by 19 percent of employers, up from 5 percent in 2002.

Down-payment assistance can range from $1,000 to more than $10,000 per employee. Other perks include credit counseling, help finding real estate agents and partnerships with non-profits that guide employees through the often-confusing process of buying a home.

Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, Intel and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., are just some of the companies that offer housing benefits. Fannie Mae offers no-cost guidance for companies looking to set up housing assistance, and the program has grown dramatically since 2000, the newspaper reported.

Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., offers $5,000 toward a down payment for first-time homebuyers who make less than $70,000 a year. Homes must be within 10 miles of work, and the employees must stay at the hospital for five years or they must repay all or part of the money.

And at Jancoa Janitorial Services in Cincinnati, advisers are available to help workers navigate the many steps of home ownership right through closing day, when employees celebrate with cake and balloons at work.

"The happiest moment of my life was the closing," said Jancoa's human resources manager, Soraya Ardon. "They take you through the whole process. I wouldn't have any idea what to do otherwise."

Employees say housing benefit programs make the difference between owning a home or not. In addition, companies are finding that the cost of quick employee turnover is higher than the housing benefits.

"Once upon a time, health care and child care weren't an employer issue, either," says Robin Snyderman of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Illinois, which has helped lead a homeownership program with local employers. "This is a bottom-line issue, and that's what's attracting employers to the table."

Nevertheless, the housing crunch shows no sign of abating as salary increases lag far behind the surging growth in housing costs.

"The housing problem is very, very disturbing," says Bob Reid, president of the Center for Housing Policy in Washington, D.C. "The cost of homes is going up faster than incomes. This affects millions of people who can't afford to live where they work, and we don't see the problem getting any better."

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