Some employers offer workers financial assistance in buying houses

November 18, 1990|By Andrea Knox | Andrea Knox,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- After living in rented quarters for eight years, Georgiana Winterbottom and her family discovered the house of their dreams: an old house on a quiet, one-way street in Princeton, N.J.

The only problem was how to pay for it.

Ms. Winterbottom's employer came to the rescue. Church & Dwight Co. Inc., the manufacturer of Arm & Hammer baking soda, lent her part of the purchase price. If she stays with the company for five years, the loan will be forgiven.

Ms. Winterbottom, who moved into her new house July 1, is the sixth beneficiary of a 2-year-old policy aimed at keeping valued workers while building Church & Dwight's image in a community where it is a relative newcomer. The company moved its headquarters from Piscataway, N.J., to Princeton five years ago.

With its decision to help employees buy their homes, Church & Dwight joined a small but growing number of employers that are helping their workers beat the high cost of housing.

The American Affordable Housing Institute at Rutgers Universitysays that at least 100 employers provide housing assistance beyond programs connected with job transfers.

"Employers are realizing the lack of affordable housing is having bottom-line consequences" because it increases the difficulty of hiring and keeping workers, says the institute's research director, Dan Hoffman.

That realization came years ago in the cases of workers who were transferred to company locations where housing was more expensive. Such employees routinely have been offered help buying houses.

But transfers generally are limited to a company's higher-paid employees. The current concern is lower-paid workers who might not be able to afford houses in the first place.

At Church & Dwight, for example, the housing-assistance program originally was offered only for purchases in a low- and moderate-income housing development. Although the company now subsidizes any purchase in Princeton Borough or Princeton Township, higher-paid employees have not used the program, says community relations manager John J. Langsdorf.

One sign of the growing interest in helping lower-paid workers is that 16 companies have signed up for the Home Ownership for PerformingEmployees program, introduced a year ago by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

HOPE offers low-interest mortgages to workers whose employers agree to guarantee at least 10 percent of the total mortgage amount. The guarantee eliminates the need for a down payment.

HOPE participants range in size from American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to a tire store with three employees. One loan has been granted, and a number of applications are under review.

Applications may be coming in slowly because of the delays involved in deciding to purchase, waiting for apartment leases to expire and hunting for houses, participating companies say.

The HOPE program, limited to workers with household incomes of less than $64,100, also sets limits on the cost of the house to be purchased. In Camden County, for example, the program will finance purchases of existing single-family houses costing no more than $134,310.

In Pennsylvania, the commonwealth's Housing Finance Agency in April set aside $3 million to be used for mortgage loans to low- and moderate-income employees of the University of Pennsylvania who buy houses in West Philadelphia. The agency would like to extend the program to other employers, says executive director Karl Smith.

Employers who offer housing assistance regard it as an aid in attracting and keeping employees in a labor market that continues to be tight despite recessionary twinges.

Nationwide, employers complain of shortages of entry-level workers and workers with certain skills such as nursing. In New Jersey, where the August unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, the squeeze is one of the most severe in the nation.

At the same time, relatively high housing prices frustrate many workers in their attempts to save enough money to buy their own homes.

"What happens many times is that to afford a house they will have to commute an hour and a half each way to work. But they get tired of that and find a job closer to home, and the company winds up losing them," says Claudia Lovas, who administers the HOPE program.

Workers frequently pay so much in rent that they find it difficult or impossible to save enough money for down payments and closing costs, she says. Yet, in many cases, their rental histories prove that they can carry substantial housing costs.

The prospect of losing good employees was brought home to directors and administrators of the Medford Leas retirement community when an employee quit because he needed to collect his lump-sum pension distribution to use as a down payment on a house.

"We thought there were others who wanted to leave for the same reason, and we didn't want to lose them," says controller Frank Gentile.

To keep them, Medford Leas joined the HOPE program and also allowed employees to borrow from their pension accounts to make down payments.

Two employees already have purchased houses with pension-plan loans, Mr. Gentile says. Though no Medford Leas employee has applied for the HOPE program, 10 of the facility's 160 full-time employees inquired about the program within an hour of learning about it.

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