Workers get help to buy homes Some employers find aid programs pay off


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If you listen closely when Nancy Moran gives her address, you'll hear a note of pride. "When people ask my address, they say, 'Oh, apartment 218?' And I say, 'No, unit 218.' "

The distinction is subtle to others, but to Ms. Moran, 44, it's a fulfillment of the American dream that often had seemed financially impossible since her divorce six years ago.

It means owning a two-bedroom $146,000 condominium, having a play area where her 9-year-old son can romp, living five minutes from where she works for San Mateo County and slicing $50 from her monthly housing bills.

Ms. Moran owns her home today thanks to a $35,000 loan under a mortgage-assistance program that the county created because lower-paid employees were quitting to take jobs where housing was affordable. So far, only about 10 workers have qualified for shared-appreciation loans, but if Ms. Moran is any indication the 1-year-old program already is a success.

"I could not have done it without" the program, she said. It has "offered me an opportunity to stay in the county where I grew up, to be close to my job."

In a valley known almost as much for its high housing prices as its high technology, experts say everyone involved can benefit from employer-assisted housing programs: the boss trying to recruit and retain valuable employees, the worker trying to afford a house and the community trying to rebuild or cope with companies threatening to move to a cheaper area.

And yet the programs have been largely ignored, particularly by American businesses. In some cases, that's because companies are more preoccupied with surviving the recession than with increasing benefits. But experts say the problem also is partly a lack of awareness of what can be done, concerns about adding another expense, a wariness over the programs' effectiveness and the uneasiness that bosses feel when they are asked to focus on real estate instead of widgets.

"It's hard for employers to know where to start," said Liz Dayan, a benefit consultant for The Segal Co., a Washington-based employee benefits consulting firm. "It's not a cookie-cutter concept."

Indeed, most of the programs have popped up to meet specific needs:

* To unload foreclosed properties, a North Carolina lender is offering discounted houses to employees.

* To help rebuild a neighborhood crippled by poverty, drugs and crime, the Emanuel Medical Center Foundation of Portland, Ore., is offering forgivable $5,000 loans to employees who buy houses worth as much as $65,000 as an incentive to put down stakes within a 2-mile by 4-mile zone around the hospital.

"If this program is responsible for one less gunshot, for one less issue related to poverty, then the program has paid for itself," said foundation President Larry Raff.

* To meet a call for housing near jobs, Tandem Computers Inc. saidlast year it plans to build a mixed-use campus in Cupertino, Calif., that would include 500 residential units, most likely condominiums.

* To recruit and retain faculty and administrators, the University of California has built a "company town" for the 1990s -- 431 Spanish-style single-family houses, condos, town houses and custom lots on its Irvine campus. The university holds the ground leases and ties resale prices to construction, inflation or faculty pay indexes, so prices remain 20 percent to 50 percent below prices on houses near the campus.

Employer-assisted housing "is happening, but unfortunately it's happening in an ad hoc way," Dan Hoffman, director of the American Affordable Housing Institute at Rutgers University, said during a speech last month in San Jose.

The one exception is the national Magnet program offered by the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae, a publicly held company chartered by Congress that ranks as the nation's largest investor in home mortgages.

In April, Fannie Mae made headlines when it announced it would buy up to $1 billion in home loans if employers chipped in on their workers' mortgages. Employers have the choice of grants, fully repayable loans, forgivable loans, deferred loans, monthly payment assistance or loan guarantees.

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