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Aerospace Industry Feels Housing Pinch

May 30, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Scientists and engineers planning to join the South Bay's expanding high-technology work force usually bring with them the strong home-owning traditions of their native states.

So it can be quite a shock when they discover that for most newcomers mountainous housing costs in this area have just about buried the old American dream of owning a home.

"The dream becomes a fantasy when they think they can get a big house on an acre of land for $90,000," said Walker Owens, executive vice president of the Torrance Chamber of Commerce.

"That doesn't mean housing isn't available, but the size of the home and the cost aren't going to be anything like it is back East and in other areas of the country."

Bad News for Industry

Just the lot for a newcomer's dream house may cost $125,000, Owens said. The final price tag for a home in an attractive neighborhood with good schools can easily top $200,000.

After a few weeks of futile searching, some newcomers may turn down otherwise attractive job offers and head back home or to some other part of the country where houses are cheaper and more available, he said.

And that's bad news for an industry with a growing need for people who can design and build high-tech military and space systems, Owens added.

Housing costs are also affecting workers already in the industry. At Hughes Radar Systems Group in El Segundo, for example, 31% of the workers leaving the company in 1984 gave the high cost of housing as their main reason for leaving--a percentage almost twice that of the previous year--according to Mel Franklin, a human resources administrator.

Franklin said the exiting workers were "valuable professionals" that the company wanted to keep.

Consortium Attempted

The South Bay's housing economy has hampered industry efforts to help new workers find homes. Several years ago, Owens said, 14 major firms formed a housing consortium with the idea of subsidizing new housing construction for their employees.

The companies, including Northrop, Hughes Aircraft, Rockwell, Garrett AiResearch, TRW, Aerospace Corp. and Exellon Industries, raised about $130,000 for a feasibility study. But land and housing costs rose so rapidly during the planning stages that the project was abandoned, Owens said.

To attract and retain key personnel, the larger companies may provide housing help in several forms, such as paying the fees of outside agencies that specialize in finding homes for executives or including a housing subsidy in a new employee's fringe benefits, Owens said. None of the companies contacted would say whether they provide such benefits.

The Hughes radar division is apparently the only aerospace firm in the area that has an in-house counseling service for all employees who need help in finding a home.

A Little Advice

Relocation office manager Gail Driver said she operates on the premise that a a little expert advice often can help connect a worker's dream of home ownership to the reality of the area's housing market.

"We try to convince people that a home of their own doesn't have to be beyond their reach," she said. "If what they need--and can afford--isn't available in the immediate area, we take them on a tour of surrounding areas where they can see the great diversity of housing that's available.

"For example, if they say they need a four-bedroom home on a big lot, we may take them down to Cerritos where there are houses like that starting at $160,000.

"Looking for a home isn't really the frightening and overwhelming experience that many newcomers think it is--especially not if you're flexible, realistic and willing to do some solid planning."

Flexible, Realistic

Being flexible and realistic, Driver said, sometimes means accepting the idea that a smaller and thus cheaper home fits in with California's climate and outdoor life style. Or it can mean renting for a while, until the newcomer builds up enough credit and reserves to take on a mortgage without plunging into bankruptcy.

Or it can mean postponing dreams of living on the beach and settling for a nice, if distant, home in outlying areas like Irvine, the San Fernando Valley, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks, Driver said.

If enjoying the California beach life remains a high priority to the newcomers, she said, the goal can be an added incentive to climb the corporate ladder to a level where they can afford a seaside home.

In the meantime, commuting from a distant home is not all that bad, especially if the worker uses the company's subsidized van service, Driver said.

Vans, Car Pools

More than 160 company vans and small buses carry about 2,000 employees daily between the Hughes plant and homes throughout a four-county area, said Linda Christianson of the relocation office staff. Car pools carry another 1,600 riders, she said.

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