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University program to help staff finance homes

The University announced this week that it will implement a new housing program, beginning next month, to assist faculty and staff earning low to moderate incomes.

In partnership with PNC Bank, the program allows first-time New Jersey homeowners to finance a property without a down payment and gives them access to lower interest rates at a 30-year fixed rate.

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The program also offers expanded credit criteria, grants toward closing costs and advice from real estate professionals.

Participants are required to meet eligibility requirements and take a free homeowner education course taught on campus by PNC representatives.

"There are hundreds of [University] employees that, judging from their individual salary, would qualify," Executive Vice President Mark Burstein said in an interview. But he stressed that personal salaries may not reflect an employee's gross family income.

The program, which will broaden the scope of the University's assistance programs, is designed to increase living standards for lower income staff.

Previously, the University only offered mortgage assistance to higher levels of faculty and staff that live within nine miles of the University.

"[The program] hopefully means that employees would be more likely to stay and feel more positively about their employment here," Burstein said.

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While the University pays above the market wage rate, most biweekly paid workers, including many dining service and facilities workers, are still considered cost-burdened — spending over 30 percent of their annual income on housing.

"The new program represents a relatively small commitment compared to the overall budget, but will go a long way towards helping the University's lowand moderate-income workers achieve the dream of owning a home," said Tom Bohnett '07, president of the Princeton Justice Project and director of its Housing Committee. Bohnett is also a columnist for The Daily Princetonian.

A dining hall worker earning $13.16, the midpoint hourly wage per hour, on a standard 42-week work schedule will earn $22,108 gross salary, according to the Office of Human Resources.

"Not surprisingly, many workers pay over 50 percent of their income on housing a month," Bohnett said. He cited so-called Fair Market Rent statistics from the Department of Housing and Urban Development which indicate that, for instance, a dining hall worker would use at least 55 percent of income on an average two-bedroom apartment in the area.

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To pay these high rents, "[Workers] are probably making cuts in other important areas, like health, education and food," Bohnett said.

Bohnett's Housing Committee has been lobbying the University for the past year to institute a housing benefit for biweekly workers. Last spring, the group surveyed 65 biweekly workers and found they lived primarily in and around the poorest areas of Mercer County.

"Even though these workers were ghettoized in poor areas with relatively inexpensive housing, our survey showed that many were still struggling to meet their housing costs," Bohnett said.

Disseminating information about the new program could prove a challenge.

Dining Services grill cook Oscar Smith said there has been a lack of communication with dining services staff in the past, especially since many workers don't have access to information through the Internet.

"If they're going to start this program, they need to get the ball rolling and let a lot of staff know about it," Smith said.

Smith, a 10-year University employee, said the program could help many of his colleagues, especially casual workers who are employed only during the school year, break into the housing market when they lack the down payment or credit history to take out regular loans.

"A lot of people have to work two jobs to make ends meet," said Smith, who works at the University from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then at another job from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Eligibility requirements

The PNC program targets lowerto moderate-income faculty and staff, including monthly, biweekly and casual workers.

To qualify for the program, a worker's gross family income must be less than 80 percent of the median income in the county where he or she plans to buy or rent. For Mercer County, that translates to a gross family income of $64,600 or below.

The program only accepts first-time buyers of oneor two-family dwellings, townhouses or condominiums that will be their primary residences in New Jersey.

University staff must also complete a free course on buying homes.

The University's Human Relations office will coordinate classes to start in mid-November after surveying staff about the best time and location, according to Lianne Sullivan-Crowley, vice president for human resources.

"We're hoping to get a bunch of people signed up for these home-buying classes, even if they're not looking to buy right now," Sullivan-Crowley said. "We want to make sure it's available to anyone who's interested." She added that staff members will be encouraged to bring their spouses.

Some staffers may not be able to make sessions that are scheduled at night or on weekends because they work multiple jobs or live far from the University.

"The University must work hard to eliminate any and all barriers to participation in this program," Bohnett said. "This might mean giving workers time off to attend information sessions [or] recruiting workers individually."

PNC representatives will be on hand to answer questions at the Benefits Fair sponsored by the Office of Human Resources from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today in Frist Campus Center.

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