The high cost of housing in Southern California is pressing employers to offer subsidies or other housing assistance to an unlikely constituency: middle-class workers.
Although the region's supercharged housing market has ebbed somewhat, costs remain high relative to income for key workers, including police officers, firefighters, teachers and healthcare workers. The median home price in the region hit $480,000 in February, up 13% from the previous year.
"The high cost of homes is consistently cited as an obstacle for people wanting to join the Los Angeles Police Department," said Matt Myerhoff, spokesman for L.A. Councilman Greig Smith.
"We want police living in the city because if there's an earthquake or fire or flood, we don't want them commuting 60 miles or more from Lancaster and being stuck in traffic," he said.
Smith, an LAPD reserve officer, introduced a measure in February calling for review of an existing city-administered down payment assistance program that helps low- and moderateincome people buy homes, to see how it can be tailored for police and firefighters.
A detailed proposal, which probably would include some restrictions, must be developed and reviewed by several city departments before the City Council votes on it.
If approved, the down payment assistance program would provide about $50,000 to $90,000 in low-interest loans to eligible buyers, depending on the purchase price, credit history and loan package. Compton, Pasadena, San Diego and other cities offer similar programs.
Such housing assistance programs, once a platinum perk for the executive elite or a temporary fix when employees must relocate, are slowly becoming available to mid-level workers at municipalities, universities, hospitals and banks.
Business leaders say employers must become more resourceful if they hope to attract and retain talent. They say that housing costs are scaring away hires.
"Housing prices are becoming a very significant factor in being able to attract people from other parts of the country," said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, which represents downtown businesses and property owners.
"We hear from employers all the time that it's hard to recruit employees," she said.
Steve Cohen, manager of instructional media services at USC, said the university's home-buying program made it possible for him and his wife, Carolyn, to buy a 108-year-old Craftsman-style house near the University Park campus south of downtown in 2001.
USC provides $25,000, paid in diminishing monthly payments over seven years, to any employee who buys a home within several blocks of either of its two campuses; it is one of the region's more generous employer-funded housing subsidies. If an employee sells before the seven years are up, payments are suspended.
Since 1996, 105 employees have participated in the program.
"It's an amazing house," said Cohen, who previously rented an apartment in Hollywood for $800 a month. "We fell in love with it. This [program] certainly helped us buy it."
For the last 20 years, UC Irvine has helped faculty and some staff find housing at University Hills, a park-like, on-campus complex of houses, town houses and condominiums. One of the largest faculty housing complexes in the country, University Hills spans 200 acres and has about 900 dwelling units.
Faculty members can purchase the homes and lease the land through a lottery system for about 40% below market value. Property value increases at University Hills are tied to inflation, not to the real estate market, keeping prices low. About 80% of newly hired faculty members live in the complex, said Bill Parker, past president of the Irvine Campus Housing Authority.
Cal State Northridge is planning a similar housing program. Officials expect to break ground next year on 14 acres on the north campus. The complex will offer about 150 condominiums for sale and 100 for rent at about 25% below market value.
"We have to do something. If we don't, people are going to be lost," said Tom McCarron, executive director of the University Corp. at the school. "It's already happening. We're having more and more trouble recruiting and retaining faculty and staff."
Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital is trying to build housing for its nurses and staff. The median home price in Santa Barbara exceeds $1 million, and the hospital is increasingly desperate to hang onto employees.
About 40% of the hospital's employees do not own homes, and one in four commutes from outside the city, living too far away to get to work quickly in an emergency, said hospital spokeswoman Janet O'Neill.
Heidi Albert, a nurse who lives in Santa Barbara and works in the obstetrics department at Cottage Hospital, has watched many of her colleagues leave town because they can't find a house. She is counting on the hospital to build housing for staff.