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Incentives Needed to Lure Workers to Ventura

Times Staff Writer

Firms used to move to Ventura County because land was cheaper than in Los Angeles and Orange County and employees could afford homes.

But times have changed and today the median cost of a resale home in Ventura County exceeds $234,000, making the county the second highest market in the state.

As a result, local business are turning increasingly to innovative housing and relocation benefits in attempts to recruit and retain workers.

Incentives range from one-time cash bonuses to low-cost housing loans to paying the difference in housing taxes or mortgage interest rates between the old home and the new.

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One hospital in Ventura County has purchased homes and apartments which it rents to certain skilled employees at below-market rates.

Only a handful of Ventura County companies offer big-ticket housing assistance, but many more say high home costs pose a threat to recruitment, and eventually may drive existing employees out of the county.

“It’s the single biggest headache we have and there’s no easy solution,” said John Huddy, president of Riklis Broadcasting, which owns Oxnard TV station 63-KADY.

A Disaster Zone

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Huddy said he flies out potential employees who fall in love with Ventura’s palm trees, beach and fresh air.

“Then the applicant looks at housing costs and finds it horrifying. We get a sheepish call . . .,” Huddy said.

Some firms have declared Ventura County--where housing costs rose 28% last year--the real estate equivalent of a disaster zone.

Proctor & Gamble has designated the area as one of seven nationwide where employees can qualify for extra housing assistance.

Consider the plight of Al Austen, who recently transferred from a P&G; plant in Pennsylvania to become a manager at P&G;'s paper products plant in Oxnard.

In Dalton, Pa., Austen owned a two-story, colonial-style home on a half-acre of land.

A ‘Heart-Stopper’

When he moved to Thousand Oaks last November, he traded it in for a one-story tract home on a quarter-acre that cost $120,000 more than the home he left behind.

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“Even though people prepare you for it, the cost of housing is a heart-stopper. I never dreamed I’d be paying that much,” he said ruefully.

P&G; tries to help by making interest-free loans available in certain cases to relocating homeowners who can’t afford down payments. The loan is repaid over five years and in exchange, the firm shares in the equity build up of the home, spokesman Bob Paulger said.

Housing experts say such help is crucial if firms want to retain key personnel. Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm that specializes in relocation, found that already, 39% of employees resist transfers to the Los Angeles area because of the scarcity of affordable housing.

“Employer-assisted housing is cheaper than wage increases and more valuable,” says David C. Schwartz, director of the American Affordable Housing Institute at Rutgers University. “We’re finding tremendous interest in the business community and labor unions.”

Superintendent Quit

Barry Hammitt, the executive director of the Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, which represents 6,500 workers, agreed. He said that finding people to run the county government--from landfill engineers to transportation planners--poses an increasing problem.

Last year for instance, the county lost its Ventura Unified School District superintendent because the man could not afford the home he wanted despite an $85,000 salary.

“If it’s a factor for people at my income level, what about for people coming in at levels significantly lower, at the beginning of their careers?,” says Jack Gyves, who is now superintendent of the Napa Valley School District.

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The question is echoed in boardrooms throughout the county. Some firms have come up with at least partial answers.

Chevron greases the path to Ventura by offering cash bonuses of up to $30,000 for home-owning and salaried employees who relocate from the depressed Texas market. The firm also pays closing costs on homes and provides bridging loans for employees who buy new homes before they sell their old ones.

Spouses Find Jobs

“Everybody goes into culture shock when they go from a low- to a high-priced housing market. You do a lot of soul searching,” says Linda Sheldon, a human resources representative at Chevron USA.

Sheo suffered a few pangs herself when Chevron relocated her from Midland, Tex., to Ventura last year and she traded a “dream home” for a condo at a $17,000 loss.

Amgen, a Thousand Oaks biotech firm, will help spouses of employees find local jobs and will consider hiring those with applicable skills, says vice president of human resources Bill Puchlevic. In some cases, Amgen will also offer employees home loans at several points below market rates.

One of the county’s most progressive housing assistance plans is that of Ventura’s Community Memorial Hospital, which bought three homes and one four-unit apartment building within walking distance of the hospital.

The hospital rents them at up to $200 below-market cost to employees with difficult-to-find skills and doesn’t require a security deposit or first month’s rent, says Executive Director Dr. Michael D. Bakst.

County’s Tax Base

“We hope the money they save will give them a nest egg to get started,” Bakst said.

For some firms, the answer lies in expanding elsewhere. GTE and Patagonia, a manufacturer of outdoor equipment, recently opted to relocate divisions outside of California, in part because of high housing costs.

This alarms Ventura County’s business community, which foresees ominous implications for the county’s tax base.

Business leaders say the answer may lie in a joint effort by business and government. New Jersey, for instance, is considering a law that would offer companies a $1 incentive for every $3 they spend on employee housing benefits, says Schwartz of the Affordable Housing Institute, who is also a state assemblyman.

“Employee-assisted housing is the solution to America’s moderate-income housing crisis,” Schwartz said. “If employers don’t do it, who will?”


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