HomeOwning Dreams And Reality

    GRAND RAPIDS — Dreams of owning a home can often be dashed by money problems, bad credit and the lack of a down payment.

    The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, however, has undertaken a program to help businesses make the American dream a reality for their employees.

    In cooperation with area businesses, including Padnos Iron and Metal Co., and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Employer Assisted Housing program, homeownership recently became a reality for employees like Jose Alfredo and Alisa Borchert-Barrera, and for Adam and Jennifer Hicks.

    Adam Hicks and Alfredo — who are employees at the Padnos Holland plant — were able to qualify for their company’s assisted housing program.

    The program began in 1998 as a City of Grand Rapids task force worked to promote city revitalization.

    “It started out as a walk-to-work program to redevelop or improve some of the older, more run-down areas of the city,” said Jorge Ballivian, administrative assistant with the Employer Assisted Housing program.

    “We started working with area businesses to assist their employees in building a house or buying a house in the city to try to build it up again.”

    The Employer Assisted Housing program really took flight in 2000 when the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce took over and signed the first business, Padnos Iron and Metal, in December 2001.

    Part of the process of becoming first-time homebuyers meant that the two employees had to take a six-hour coaching class through the Michigan State University Extension Service.

    The orientation prepares first-timer homeowners not only for the hard realities of property taxes and municipal special assessments, but also for the need to develop financial stamina for the unforeseen: those occasions when Murphy’s Law dictates anything from roof leaks and sewer back-ups, to failing faucets and supply line freeze-ups.

    While each business sets up the program differently internally, Padnos helps its employees by providing a forgivable loan to help with their down payment or closing costs.

    Padnos requires that employees receiving the benefit contribute a minimum of $1,000 toward housing costs, plus 10 hours of community service or enrollment in an English as a second language course.

    The firm, in turn, matches the $1,000 and also puts in a donation of $1,000, bringing the forgivable loan to $2,000.

    Employees approved for the forgivable loan do not have to pay it back, provided they remain with the company for five years.

    If the employee terminates employment or sells the house during the five years, the forgivable loan amount is to be repaid, less any taxes withheld.

    According to the chamber, participating lenders and Realtors have given an added value to the program by helping first-time homebuyers understand the benefits of home ownership.

    Chamber spokesmen said the motivating force behind an employer-assisted housing program can best be described by the four R’s: employee recruitment and retention, neighborhood revitalization and community relations.

    One focus of the program is to see more homeownership among workers within the city of Grand Rapids and the city of Holland.

    The program is funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Frey Foundation, The Slemons Foundations, the Wege Foundation, the City of Grand Rapids and participating employers and lenders.

    In addition, each business that participates in the program is charged a yearly fee that also contributes to the program.

    “We have had 62 employees go through the training classes from December 2001 to September 2002,” said Ballivian.

    “Out of that 62, 13 have bought homes with the assistance of their company and two have been in the city of Grand Rapids, so we are getting off the ground and learning and getting the word out there that this is a great retention and recruitment tool for businesses.”

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