Offering housing assistance is more than a benefit, employers say

Chase Holmes bought a townhouse in the Fairfax neighborhood of Cleveland seven years ago. Aided by a forgivable loan from his employer, Cleveland Clinic, Holmes was able to move into the same community in which he works as a program manager in the community health equity department of the nonprofit healthcare system. 

“There’s no better feeling than living close to where you work,” Holmes told HR Dive. 

Holmes participated in what is known as the Greater Circle Living home purchase program, through which Cleveland Clinic, as well as other nonprofit institutions in the community, provides housing assistance to employees who choose to buy homes near their jobs. 

Cleveland Clinic provides employees with up to $20,000 in forgivable loans to purchase homes, a benefit more than 100 main campus workers have taken advantage of, a hospital spokesperson said. Through the program, the loan is forgiven if the borrowing employee continues to work for Cleveland Clinic and occupy the residence for 60 months after purchase, according to an organizational pamphlet.

Cleveland Clinic and its local partners are among a host of employers nationwide providing some sort of housing assistance to workers. The benefit not only helps strengthen the community around the workplace, but also serves as an attraction and retention tool, employers say. 

One in 4 employers are considering offering housing assistance as an employee benefit this year, and more than 1 in 4 workers would change jobs to secure employer-sponsored housing benefits, according to the results of a recent survey by insurance agency JW Surety Bonds.

“This is something that’s being done around the country,” said Vickie Johnson, senior vice president and chief community officer at Cleveland Clinic. “I believe that all employers should consider it.”

In addition to the home purchase program, Cleveland Clinic also offers through Greater Circle Living an existing home repair program — employees who already live near work can receive up to $8,000 in matching funds to perform home improvements — and a rental assistance program — workers can get up to $1,400 to help cover a month of rent. All told, more than 510 employees have used the home assistance programs, Cleveland Clinic said. 

For Holmes, living where he works helps build trust in the community, which can sometimes question the intentions of large employers, he said. 

“People get to know me. They know that I’m their neighbor,” Holmes said. “A big employer should no doubt have a commitment to a community.”

More than a benefit

For the University of Pennsylvania, providing housing assistance is part of its role as an anchor institution in the community, a university spokesperson said.  

“Penn has really for many, many years been investing in the surrounding neighborhood,” the spokesperson said. “It’s really part of a bigger, broader anchor institution effort than it is just a benefit like you would give somebody a benefit for child care or healthcare.” 

The University of Pennsylvania has offered housing assistance since 1965, when it launched a guaranteed mortgage program for employees choosing to buy homes near the West Philadelphia campus. The nonprofit suspended that program when the real estate crisis hit in the late 2000s but introduced a forgivable loan program, Sean Stickel, controller of the division of business services for the university, said. 

Through the program, employees of the university and the health system can get a five-year forgivable loan up to $7,500 that can be used either to buy new property or improve existing property in the surrounding area, Stickel said. About 1,500 University of Pennsylvania employees have used either the guaranteed mortgage or forgivable loan programs, he said, and only one worker ever defaulted on the mortgage. 

“We’re constantly assessing what we can do to make sure that the program is to continue,” said Ambika Singh, manager of Penn Home Ownership Services. 

The program is always evolving to meet the needs of workers and the community, the spokesperson said. As housing prices and interest rates have climbed in recent years, it’s sometimes a challenge to ensure there are affordable housing options, she said. 

“This program has served people who are very high income, like doctors, and also very low income, like our support staff. That’s important to us, that we are able to provide a range of housing options, price-wise, too,” the spokesperson said. 

University of Pennsylvania also offers a closing cost reduction program, allowing employees to work with set lending partners to get reduced rates on their mortgages.