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Wanted: a working solution to housing costs

A growing number of communities are realizing that attracting and retaining quality workers often boils down to cost and quality of housing.

Lack of workforce housing, places that professionals such as teachers and police officers can afford without a huge commute, is a “cost and affordability crisis” impacting communities nationwide, said Robert Burns, a representative for the Washington D.C.-based NeighborWorks America, who spoke at the 14th Annual Affordable Housing Conference. NeighborWorks America is a government-formed nonprofit that works through a network of more than 235 community development organizations nationwide.

In recent years, the topic of workforce housing has entered the limelight locally, after Spokane and Coeur d’Alene went through two straight years of steep appreciation.

The problem was more pronounced in Coeur d’Alene, where the average sales price for a single-family home rose by about 30 percent in 2005 and then by 13.3 percent the following year.

“The housing issue is impacting more and more people all the time,” said Ray Mooney, who attended the session. As vice president for community development for Spokane-based Sterling Savings Bank, Mooney works with area agencies to improve housing and economic stability for low-to-moderate-income people throughout the region.

In communities, such as Orange County, Burns said nonprofits are starting to join with government, banks and business to create home-buying opportunities.

Developers creating affordable housing can qualify for below-market-rate predevelopment loans. Companies are starting to offer grants to help with down payments and closing costs and are even hosting home-buying seminars in the workplace.

Some lenders are providing low-interest second mortgages, Burns said and a growing number of cities are requiring developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in their projects.

Preventing foreclosures is crucial to alleviating the affordability crisis because homebuyers with second mortgages are more susceptible to defaults, he said.

“I think all of us are aware that foreclosure is an increasing concern across the nation,” Burns said.

Mooney said there are a number of government programs and nonprofits devoted to creating affordable housing.

However, it’s harder to find the right combination of things to help workers who aren’t considered low-income, but still can’t afford a home, the Sterling executive explained.

“It’s a complicated process because the cost of housing is just out of sight.”


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