The line of students pining for grass-fed burgers and organic field greens outside the Berkeley College dining hall was moving slower than usual earlier this week. But Annette Tracey, a familiar figure in the dining hall, was not turning away yet another group of Calhoun College transfers desperate for a good meal. Instead, she was eagerly showing every student pictures of her new home on Dixwell Avenue.
“I even have sunflower seeds to decorate my garden” she said, proudly waving a pack in front of the hungry students. “You guys have to come help me plant them.”
Tracey is one of nearly 700 Yale faculty and staff to participate in the Homebuyer Program, the largest employer-assisted homeownership program of any university in the world, created by President Richard Levin in 1994. The program was designed to encourage Yale employees to purchase residences in downtown New Haven.
Eighty percent of these employees, like Tracey, are first-time homebuyers who might not have considered purchasing downtown were it not for the program. Available to any benefits-eligible Yale faculty or staff member, the program provides $25,000 over 10 years to purchase a home in designated areas of New Haven, $7,000 of which is paid to participants for a down payment at closing.
Homeowners are more likely to vote and take better care of their property, stabilizing the “civic fabric” of neighborhoods, Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said. Homeownership is also the primary way for citizens to accumulate assets for themselves and their children, Morand said.
“Although it is not generally the role of higher institutions to fund ownership, it makes perfect sense for an institution to invest in its own people,” Morand said.
But in its early years, the program was met with some community and union criticism as more of a public relations tool than an effective urban development program. In response to community rumblings at the exclusion of some greater New Haven areas, the program recently increased in size and scope. Currently advertised by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs as a pioneering program, the expanded Homebuyer Program now serves as a catalyst for other universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, as well as city nonprofit organizations such as the Hospital of Saint Raphael to initiate their own homebuyer programs.
Yale has publicly promoted the program as a model of university relations with the surrounding community, and Levin continues to encourage other institutions to adopt similar programs, even if they are more modest than the over $1 million annual cost of Yale’s program.
“Not every institution can afford an investment of this magnitude, but many employers can create programs tailored to their resources and the needs of their community,” Levin said in a speech at Case Western Reserve University in 2003 on universities’ contributions to their host cities.
The homeownership rate in Connecticut is below the national median, according to a Connecticut Corporation for Economic Development study. In particular, the gap in homeownership between white and non-white families is the fifth largest in the nation. The Homebuyer Program aims to address this problem, with 50 percent of its participants being minorities.
But the price of homes purchased in the program — at an average of $127,600 and a median of $110,000 — may still be too steep for lower-paid employees, many of whom are minorities, Connecticut Center for a New Economy Director Andrea Cole said.
“I think the program is a positive force,” Cole said. “But the real question is whether people have access to it in a way that everyone is able to take advantage of it equally. Otherwise, what will happen is that a lot of the money will be used only by white, higher-paid employees who can afford New Haven housing.”
The University renews the Homebuyer Program every two years. Presently in its sixth stage, the program has undergone numerous expansions, including an increase in the overall package from $20,000 to $25,000 and a widened area covered by the program. It currently extends to Newhallville, Dixwell, Dwight, Fair Haven, West Rock, Beaver Hill, Wooster Square, Hill, and East Rock areas.
Labor unions including Local 35 were deeply involved in the fight to spread the program to Fair Haven and West Rock. Local 35 President Bob Proto said Yale should continue to expand the program citywide.
“As such a large employer with a healthy endowment, Yale has the resources to expand the program significantly,” Proto said. “It’s my opinion that they can afford to increase the amount of aid they give to people.”
But Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 said she does not think Yale should continue to geographically expand its Homebuyer Program.
“The [current] neighborhoods are the ones that need greater stability through increased homeownership,” Chen said. “Adding more neighborhoods would dilute that purpose.”
Leaders of development groups in Fair Haven however say the Homebuyer Program has had minimal impact on the neighborhood. Sixty percent of Fair Haven residents rent their homes, and few are even aware of the existence of the program, Sela Musquera, who heads the Fair Haven branch of the Mutual Housing Association of Southern Connecticut, said.
“I don’t think that many Yale employees in Fair Haven even know they can take advantage of the program,” Musquera said. “Perhaps Yale should be working more with organizations in Fair Haven to reach out to their own employees and make the program more effective.”
In order to make the process of purchasing a home less intimidating, Yale offers classes through the Homebuyer Education Program. Sponsored by People’s Bank, the set of four three-hour sessions introduces prospective buyers to the basics of homeownership, including mortgages, creating and living with a budget, and the importance of home inspection. Experts from every step of the process teach the sessions, including attorneys, realtors and credit bureau workers.
Bill Carney, a Homebuyer Program administrator since 1994, said although the classes may sound overly basic, they are extremely helpful for first-time homebuyers. Carney said he tries to make the process as enjoyable and easy as possible, helping clients find good realtors and attorneys, although none are directly associated with the program.
“Buying a house is not like buying a car,” Carney said. “It’s a 30 year investment, so you want to make sure you get exactly what you’re looking for. This program has had a tremendously positive impact on participants who never really thought they would own a home or didn’t know there was assistance out there.”
Student Employment Office manager Matthew Long purchased his first home in Fair Haven last March as part of the Homebuyer Program. Previously living in the outskirts of New Haven in Willimantic, Long said he would probably not have considered living in New Haven proper without University aid because of the fast-rising real estate prices.
But while searching for a house, Long said some sellers in areas qualifying for the program often raised their prices because they knew buyers could receive extra financial assistance.
“This kind of muddled the waters so that, in a way it was a mixed bag, with our benefits somehow working against us,” Long said. “I was lucky enough to find a pretty decent deal on a house from sellers who didn’t know anything about the program, but this didn’t seem to be the typical experience.”
H. Pearce Real Estate Company Firm Manager Nelly Odenwaelder, whose company works with many Yale buyers, said although sellers who qualify for the program benefit from a high demand for houses in their area, she has seen no evidence of a rise in prices as a direct result. She said the Homebuyer Program helped stabilize housing prices in New Haven, especially as interest rates continue to rise.
“The minute interest rates creep up, it limits the buying power of people, especially young professionals and those with large families,” Odenwaelder said. “The Homebuyer Program allows Yale employees to take serious interest in property that might otherwise be beyond their reach, reaping benefits for both buyers and sellers.”
Marilyn Rosa, an employee at the University business offices in internal medicine, bought her first home through the program at age 22. After going through the process with the help of the program, she said she was so encouraged that she has since purchased three more properties and become a part-time realtor at the Beazley Co. Realtors office in East Haven.
“After buying my first home, I fell in love with the whole business,” Rosa said. “The support of the program gave me tremendous motivation to purchase at such a young age.”
Having committed more than $15.5 million of its own funds to the purchase of homes with a total value of over $90.5 million, Yale plans to continue the renewal of the Homebuyer Program indefinitely, making modifications as necessary, Carney said.
Tracey said she would recommend the program to any fellow employee interested in purchasing a home, and a few other Berkeley dining hall workers have already looked into it as a result.
“I cannot wait to move into a brand new, bright, clean house that I can decorate and let my own personality shine through,” Tracy said. “I will be living in a better neighborhood, I will have an asset to my name, and I will feel a sense of ownership. I feel like I’ve achieved the American dream.”
Tracey plans to move into her new home this spring. At the rate she has been inviting people to her housewarming party, the event will be much less exclusive than the Berkeley dining hall.