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Easing the Squeeze : As Housing Costs Soar, Innovative Relocation Perks Help Ventura County Firms Woo Workers

February 09, 1989|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Dave White of Memphis, Tenn., was thrilled when Procter & Gamble offered him a job managing its paper products plant in Oxnard.

For 33-year-old White, who drove a Corvette and lived in a gated, lakeside community, the job meant a pay hike and promotion into management.

But moving to Ventura County hasn't raised White's standard of living.

Now he drives a 1985 Buick. He and his family live in a smaller, older Moorpark house that cost $70,000 more than the luxury home they left behind. The waterfront is 20 minutes away.

"When the realtor showed us homes in our price range, my wife started crying and didn't stop for three days," White recalled. "Even with a decent salary and good equity in a house in Tennessee, we couldn't come anywhere close to our previous home."

Worth the Price

For White, the job promotion and California's sunny skies are worth the housing trade-off.

For an increasing number of those offered employment in Ventura County, they aren't.

And as the median cost of a resale home here soars past $234,000--the second highest cost in the state at the end of 1988--more local companies are following a national trend by offering innovative housing and relocation benefits in attempts to recruit and retain workers.

"Increasingly in the 1980s, employers are providing housing assistance for their workers," said David C. Schwartz, director of the American Affordable Housing Institute at Rutgers University.

Such help is crucial, said Schwartz, who fields desperate calls each day from corporate personnel offices, chambers of commerce and mayors. "Firms have lost key personnel to lower housing areas all over the county."

Cash Incentives

In Ventura County, companies offer incentives including one-time cash bonuses, low-cost housing loans and payment of the difference in property taxes or mortgage interest rates between the old homes and new. One hospital in Ventura County has even purchased homes and apartments that it rents for as much as $150 per month less than the market rate.

All told, only a few Ventura County companies offer big-ticket housing assistance. But many others say they are studying the idea or plan to offer such assistance soon.

"It's something we're going to have to continually look at," said Frank Maruna, an employment specialist with Northrop Corp., which has no companywide policy but negotiates relocation deals on an individual basis.

Studies show that companies in the Los Angeles-Ventura-Orange county area--one of the six costliest places to live in the nation--already have trouble attracting workers.

Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm that specializes in relocation, found that 39% of employees resist transfers to the Los Angeles area because of the scarcity of affordable housing. And a 1985 Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce survey found that 80 of 362 prospective Ventura County employees turned down job offers because of housing concerns, a figure that is probably higher today because of increased housing costs.

Blue-Collar Crunch

While high-tech companies that recruit professionals feel the crunch most strongly, blue-collar industries are also beginning to get nervous. Housing prices rose 28% last year in Ventura County and are expected to continue rising, according to the California Assn. of Realtors.

"Unless they already own a house, the problem we're seeing is that the work force here at the plant is not able to buy houses in this county," said White, the Tennessee transplant who runs Procter & Gamble's paper products factory in Oxnard.

Finding people to run the county government--from landfill engineers to transportation planners--is also an increasing battle.

"We're getting killed in an inability to attract and retain qualified technical people," said Barry Hammitt, executive director of the Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, the county's largest union, which represents 6,500 workers.

Hammitt said he expects to approach the Board of Supervisors within 90 days to ask that the county commit some of its retirement funds for low-interest housing loans. He said the loans would help lower-echelon county employees who otherwise would not qualify for home loans.

Top-Level Needs

Even top-level county employees could use such a loan. Take the Baltimore resident whom the county recruited for one of its top personnel jobs after a nationwide search. He flew out to tour Ventura, then turned down the job. Edward L. McLean, the county's assistant personnel director, said high housing costs helped slam the door.

Another example is Jack Gyves, the former superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District. He moved to northern California to become superintendent of the Napa Valley School District last year because he could not afford the home he wanted on his base salary of $85,000.

"If it's a factor for people at my income level, what about for people coming in at levels significantly lower, at the beginning of their careers?" he asked.

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