Bennett Rosenthal, 52, understands it's financially difficult for many of his 25 employees to afford to live near his insurance company in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago with a median household income of $112,000 and a 2005 median home price just shy of $413,000. The neighboring suburbs are also upscale. So a number of Rosenthal Bros. employees live outside the area and battle Chicago traffic to get to work on time. During heavy snowfalls, they may not make it in at all.
To cut down on absenteeism and improve morale, Rosenthal Bros. has gone the way of a growing number of U.S. businesses--it offers employees up to $15,000 as part of an employer-assisted housing program. Once a perk for high-power execs, these programs let even the lowest-level wage earners reap benefits by offering forgivable or deferred-payment loans, a grant, a matched savings plan or home-buyer education.
The Housing America's Workforce Act, introduced in the Senate, would give companies that help eligible employees buy homes a tax credit of 50 cents for every dollar they provide up to $10,000 or 6 percent of the purchase price of the employee's home, whichever is less.
For now, Fannie Mae helps employers set up EAH programs, while nonprofits such as the Metropolitan Housing Council, which Rosenthal uses, handle the administrative aspects.
So far, two Rosenthal Bros. employees have bought homes through the program. And in Illinois, the state matches down-payment assistance dollar-for-dollar up to $5,000 for income-eligible participants and gives a 50-cents-per-dollar tax credit to the employer. "For fairly nominal costs," says Rosenthal, "the program helps retain loyal and dedicated employees."