Friday, September 28, 2007

Helping businesses help themselves

Workforce housing expert offers advice to employers

Express Staff Writer


The high cost of housing in the Wood River Valley isn't solely the problem of prospective homebuyers struggling to live and work in this resort community.

National employer-assisted housing expert Dan Hoffman reinforced this fact at an ARCH Community Housing Trust-sponsored workshop on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the nextSatge Theater in Ketchum. ARCH is a nonprofit organization, previously known as Advocates for Real Community Housing, which will finish up its third annual Community Housing Week on Friday, Sept. 28.

The keynote speaker for this year's weeklong event, Hoffman offered up potential solutions for the valley's often-lamented affordable housing crisis, which would in turn benefit business owners by way of employee recruitment and retention.

"This is kind of like the first step in a 12-step program—admitting you have a problem," Hoffman said to the approximately 40-person audience, half of which identified themselves as employers. "However, the Western 'go-it-alone' ethic won't work in this area."

Hoffman said that employers these days aren't that interested in housing, a problem compounded here by the small size of most local businesses. The impetus for change would come from impacts to their bottom line, he said. Rather than a simple wage increase, assisting employees with housing is a more efficient method for employers to reduce expenditures on recruitment and training, and for increasing revenues through improved productivity.

While the problem and potential benefits are clear, the solution is not.

"Unlike an insurance agent coming to a business and offering a product, there's nobody showing up and saying, 'Here's the solution,'" Hoffman said over coffee the day after his workshop. "But if a 10-foot crack appeared in the pavement along the street (in front of Java on Second), the surrounding business owners would talk and work together to get it fixed because their businesses depend on it. This is no different."

While Hoffman spoke of macro-level approaches, such as creating an Idaho workforce housing development corporation and working with state government on tax-credit and grant programs, he also suggested actions small businesses could implement almost immediately. These could come in the form of down-payment assistance, helping with closing costs, mortgage guarantees or rent subsidies. But as obvious as these solutions may sound, plenty of barriers remain.

"Most employers know nothing about housing or their employees' needs and don't think they have a housing related problem," Hoffman said. "They don't know the bottom-line value of a housing benefit."

In addition, he said that because most employers in the area have relatively few employees, the need to work together is paramount, but likely complicated. This could come in the form of establishing a business committee for affordable housing or working with a public entity such as ARCH or the Blaine County Housing Authority.

"Any housing program will work better when there's a significant amount of participants to reach critical mass," Hoffman said, explaining that by joining together, small businesses could overcome the burden of administrative costs and provide numerous alternatives that suit the varying needs of their employees. "Doing one business at a time is a great start, but a very slow diffusion."

And, of course, no single business, especially one with a narrow operating margin, wants to bear the initial financial outlay without knowing what the return on investment will be.

To that end, Hoffman said there are a number of steps an employer could take that might not lead to huge returns, but would provide help at little or no cost. These included arranging with the company's bank to help ensure that employees with no experience in home purchasing get a good deal on a mortgage.

"This would give the employee psychic comfort," Hoffman said. "The first-time homebuyer needs reassurance he or she didn't make a terrible mistake."

Employers could also help their workers connect with a trusted housing entity like ARCH to assist with down payments or improving credit.

However, simply contributing an arbitrary amount of money isn't the solution, Hoffman said. He explained that it's more beneficial for an employer to calculate the real cost of recruitment and training, as well as the productive value of long-term employees, and matching that with their housing needs, whether for purchase or rent.

"The different choices to solve this problem aren't infinite," Hoffman said. "If employers start talking to each other about the problems they face, they will find the solution that fits this community."

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