Cops, Firefighters and Teachers Offered Affordable Housing

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Because wages are not keeping pace with housing costs, counties and cities are offering free rent, special loans and other incentives so police officers, firefighters and teachers can better afford to live where they work.

Studies have shown the problem is especially acute in the largest housing markets. For instance, according to a recent National Housing Conference report, elementary school teachers and police officers make about $41,000 a year, not enough to secure a mortgage in half of the 60 largest housing markets.

Local officials are offering incentives such as loans that can be used to help with downpayment costs, but do not have to be repaid if the recipient stays on the job for a certain number of years, said Angelo Kyle, first vice president of the National Association of Counties.

Such programs also raise the visibility in a community of people often seen as role models, added Kyle, a Lake County, Ill., commissioner.

``In too many communities, the only time a child can see a policeman on the streets is when the policeman is working,'' Kyle said Wednesday at a seminar on affordable housing sponsored by the Homeownership Alliance, a coalition of housing industry and advocacy groups. ``Why can't these first responders live where they work?''

Because of worsening teacher shortages, more city and school officials are looking at homeownership help and other benefits that had been offered for years in the private sector for years, said Segun Eubanks, director of teacher quality at the National Education Association.

But tightening budgets are making it tougher for local governments and school districts to offer such benefits, he added.

Meanwhile, those who attended the seminar said the affordable housing problem has worsened in recent years and hoped such incentives would reverse the trend.

The groups could not say how many counties or cities have started such programs, though Kyle said the issue has drawn more attention since the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed hundreds of police officers and firefighters.

Among some examples cited by Kyle:

  • A Mississippi program that offers qualifying teachers with a loan of up to $6,000 to help pay for downpayment and closing costs, designed to relieve teacher shortages in 25 rural counties.

  • Forgiveable loans of up to $7,500 for police officers and firefighters in Orlando, Fla., who are first-time homebuyers. They could also receive up to 4 percent off the home sales price.

  • A similar program for employees of the Washington suburb of Arlington County, Va., for a first-time buyer, or for relocating from a home outside the county.

The Housing and Urban Development Department has several programs that give teachers and police officers help with buying a home.

A second Washington suburb, Prince William County, Va., used the HUD programs as a way to help stem the tide of police officers departing for better-paying jobs, said a county commissioner, Sean Connoughton.

His county also offers officers free rent as long as they live near schools or apartment complexes as a way to increase law enforcement visibility.

Such perks will help lure workers as long as they are optional and do not force people into residency requirements, said George Burke, spokesman with the International Association of Fire Fighters.