Local companies urged to offer housing assistance for workers

Recognizing that it’s probably not a good time to lean on employers for extra benefits, a group of business and government leaders are nonetheless urging local companies to offer assistance for workers to rent or buy homes in Las Vegas.

Employer-assisted housing is an emerging strategy that can help businesses struggling to recruit and retain productive, stable workers, said Dawn Lane, executive director of HOPE Home Foundation and organizer of Wednesday’s housing forum at Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

Some of the solutions include offering counseling for first-time homebuyers and foreclosure prevention, matching grants for down payments and even short-term loans. Businesses will benefit by employee retention, improved morale, greater productivity and lower turnover, Lane said.

In all of the talk about foreclosures and strategic defaults in Las Vegas, what’s often overlooked is the “linchpin” of the community, which are friends, family and coworkers who live here, she said.

“The common thread I’ve noticed is the resiliency of Las Vegans,” Lane said.

Employer-assisted housing is another benefit provided by an employer, much like vacation time, health insurance and retirement plans, said Holly Moskerintz, community and political affairs representative for the National Association of Realtors.

It isn’t a new concept, she said. Mining companies built and rented homes for miners.

“It can be rental assistance, or down payment and closing costs on a home. It could be grants or loans or matching funds,” Moskerintz said. “Financial assistance may not be feasible in this economy, but it will become feasible.”

Employers could offer five-year “forgivable” loans, she said. If an employee stays with a company for five years, the loan is forgiven. That’s common among hospitals facing a high turnover rate for nurses and doctors.

“Employers can require that the home is within five miles of work so they can get there quickly,” she said.

Moskerintz named companies such as Aflac Insurance, Advance Food Co. and CVS Pharmacy that offer employer-assisted housing in other regions of the country, enticing people to live closer to downtown.

“I don’t know about Vegas, but back East, people want to live downtown,” she said. “Or people live near transit. That’s who they’re targeting. We have a tremendous commuting problem in (Washington) D.C. They drive from 40, 50, 60 miles out.”

Vickie Henry, senior analyst with Housing and Urban Development in Las Vegas, said people want to live within walking distance of work, shopping and entertainment. That’s going to be the strength of employer-assisted housing, she said.

A good example is Primm, where former owner MGM Mirage built rental properties from studio units to four-bedroom apartments for casino employees, Henry said. Rents start at $600 a month. More than half of the tenants who first occupied the apartments in 2004 are still there today.

“Sustainability is not just about going green,” she said. “It’s an economic endeavor to collaborate in a community and keep people in their homes.”

Employer-assisted housing programs, combined with the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, can help employees compete with cash buyers, 90 percent of whom are buying homes priced below $80,000, said Zolt Szorenyi, chief executive officer of Lenders Clearing House Las Vegas.

He suggests giving first-time homebuyers dibs on foreclosure homes that have been bought and renovated during the two months it takes to close escrow, before they’re put back on the market.

“We can guarantee an inventory for the first-time buyer. Most likely they will be outbid by a cash investor,” he said. “The last thing we should have is the investor flipping market like we had five years ago.”

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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