Working with the city, one home at a time

The Yale Homebuyer Program, which gives employees incentives to live in New Haven, is nearing its 1,000th participant.
The Yale Homebuyer Program, which gives employees incentives to live in New Haven, is nearing its 1,000th participant. Photo by Egidio DiBenedetto.

The year was 1994. The corner of College and Chapel streets ­— now a hub of commercial activity just adjacent to campus — remained blighted and undeveloped as New Haven struggled with soaring crime rates, a crack epidemic and a housing market that collapsed at the end of the ’80s.

Enter Sheila Saunders — a then middle-aged associate administrator at the Yale School of Medicine.

Inspired by two friends who were looking for places to settle down, Saunders visited a realtor who would set her on the path to becoming the first participant in a program now considered one of Yale’s foremost town-gown initiatives: the Yale Homebuyer Program.

Saunders’ decision started the link in a chain reaction that has allowed nearly 1,000 University employees to look to Yale for financial incentives in buying New Haven homes. The program is offered to all employees; the number of participants surpassed 950 in August, and administrators said they expect to reach the 1,000 benchmark by the end of 2011 — just in time for the program to undergo its biennial review by the Yale Corporation and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs for a ninth term.

While Yale is not the only university to offer a housing assistance program to its employees, it is among the few that prioritize community development — and not faculty recruitment — in offering homebuyer grants. Reggie Solomon ’98, a former ONHSA program director who worked at the office for eight years, said 50 percent of participants in Yale’s program are minorities and 80 percent are first-time homeowners. Statistics compiled by ONHSA also show that 75 percent of participants indicate they would not have been likely to purchase a home without the program.

At the same time, university homeownership assistance program experts say Yale can still learn valuable lessons about reaching all corners of its workforce — including the lower income bracket.

Saunders, for one, purchased her three-bedroom home in the Beaver Hills area of New Haven and said she spent the grant money Yale offered to send her younger of two sons to Notre Dame High School in West Haven, an all-male Catholic high school.

“I raised them here,” she said of the home. “It really helped me feel secure knowing the money was coming in.”

Despite the economic downturn, the program has helped out plenty of employees, said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, University associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs. Though he added that he foresees no major infrastructural changes in the near future, local realtors, national homeownership assistance program experts and Yale employees say Yale should expand the program into more neighborhoods and provide more options for employees to live in New Haven.

Annette Tracey, who works in the Berkeley dining hall, bought her house on Sherman Avenue through the program in 2005.
Annette Tracey, who works in the Berkeley dining hall, bought her house on Sherman Avenue through the program in 2005.

FIXING A MARRIAGE

One year after taking office in 1993, University President Richard Levin approached his team of administrators to figure out a way to show New Haven residents that Yale cared.

Residents have known for generations that they are in what Mayor John DeStefano Jr. calls a “marriage without the possibility of divorce,” simply by virtue of their proximity. Before Levin’s presidency, the Yale and New Haven communities were very much at odds, constantly butting heads, Board of Alderman President Carl Goldfield said Monday.

“You didn’t get the feeling that [Yale officials] integrated with the city,” he said. “They felt that the University’s concerns were the University’s concerns, and the city’s was the city’s.”

If anything, the economic disparity between the two communities during the 1990s did not help. While Yale’s endowment had increased since the 1970s, when stagflation crippled the national economy and resulted in a 46 percent endowment drop in 1979, the city was hit by the recession of the late 1980s and early ’90s, largely caused by falling prices in the housing market. Tyler Della Valle, vice president for the Greater New Haven Association of Realtors, said the 1980s were nicknamed the “Go-Go ’80s” because real estate prices had climbed quickly — and then all fell overnight.

Because of the city’s economic problems, Goldfield said, the downtown area at the time was “totally abandoned.”

“It was just dead,” he said. “People had left.”

So when Levin became president, he asked University officials to design a program that would underscore the Elm City as one of Yale’s highest priorities. What the administrators — some of whom now staff Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs — conceived would market to its thousands of employees not only a workplace but also a place to settle down. They called it the Yale Homebuyer Program.

“New Haven’s size has made it possible for town-gown cooperation to have a much bigger impact here,” Levin said of the program in 2005. “We need to be good neighbors. We are interdependent.”

‘FINE TUNING’

If accepted into the program, an applicant is given a grant of $30,000 over a 10-year period, of which $7,500 is shelled out in the first year and $2,500 each year for the remaining nine. If applicants purchase a home in the Dixwell/Winfield neighborhood, they are offered an additional $5,000. The program costs Yale approximately $1.1 million per year.

“It’s like going to your kitchen table every morning and finding thousands of dollars in singles,” said Solomon, a current development officer who purchased a home in Wooster Square in 2005.

The program also features seminars in which Yale human resources employees and workers from local banks teach homeownership skills, such as how to secure a mortgage and file the necessary paperwork with lenders and City Hall.

The seminars have existed since the beginning, Solomon said. In fact, Morand added, the program has not changed in any drastic fashion.

Still, he said there has been “fine tuning” over the years, with two minor tweaks in particular. One was the increase in Yale grants; in the first two years, the University paid each participant $2,000 a year, or $20,000 over the 10-year period. Secondly, the number of areas where participants can purchase houses was restricted, from the entire city during the first two years to seven neighborhoods designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as “empowerment zones.” (These areas, named so starting in 1994, are deemed by HUD to require financial assistance and tax incentives to stimulate economic development and job creation.)

But after Yale’s two staff unions, Locals 34 and 35, and eight student groups urged the University during 2003 union contract negotiations to allow workers to purchase homes in Fair Haven, which is not a HUD empowerment zone but attracts Hispanic workers because of its strong Latino presence, Yale officials folded. They reopened the program in Fair Haven, as well as West Rock, on Jan. 1, 2004.

FINDING A HOME

Now, administrators say, the program is used by Yale employees from all walks of life and income brackets.

“The program has benefitted people across all different categories,” added Solomon. “The program is very egalitarian in that it is available from your first day of work here, whether you’re a custodian or provost. The reality is that it has been utilized across the board.”

Yet Guido Capuano, a worker at Commons dining hall, said that although he wants to apply, he is ineligible, because he has not been an employee for five years — a stipulation the Homebuyer website does not mention.

In response, Solomon said in a later interview that dining hall workers are a special exception, because they cannot become full-time workers — and thus be eligible to apply for a Homebuyer grant — until they work for the five years. Rather, they have to work a certain amount of shifts and be promoted to full-time, Solomon said, adding that dining hall workers are “a small case” of University employees for whom enrollment in the Homebuyer program is more complex. He added that he does know which other employees might also have special cases.

The empowerment zones, too, may deter some who are free to apply for the program. Teresa Morrison, 47, also a worker at Commons, is in the middle of the process of finding a house for sale through the Homebuyer Program. While she and her husband have attended many of the seminar classes over the last two years, they were not satisfied with the limited home options available as a result of Yale only targeting HUD empowerment zones.

“They’re ruined areas, and, like my husband said, if we put our money in it, we want to be comfortable in it,” Morrison said Tuesday, adding that, in many instances, the areas lacked basic amenities such as a garage to park their car in.

When asked about the HUD empowerment zones, Morand said one of the goals of the Homebuyer Program is to “increase homeownership of areas that need it.”

GOOD NEIGHBORS

Annette Tracey, a first-time homeowner who works in the Berkeley College dining hall and is the University’s 700th participant in the Homebuyer Program, purchased her house on Sherman Avenue in 2005. At her home two weeks ago, Tracey was both tending to the weeds in her sunflower garden and uprooting those that grew in the cracks of the sidewalk half a block away from her house.

“I love the Dixwell neighborhood,” Tracey said outside her home. “I feel like I’ve achieved the American dream.”

But to be sure, Yale is not the only university that encourages homeownership in its surrounding community.

For instance faculty and staff at the University of Southern California may enroll in its Neighborhood Homeownership Program. Started in July 2006, the initiative has sustained a similar rate of enrollment as Yale’s — but with financial incentives that some national university homeownership experts such as Stephen Lauzier argue are more attractive.

During the last four years, USC has helped at least 167 faculty and staff find housing in 12 neighborhoods surrounding two campuses of the university, said Maxine McNeal, the homeownership program’s director. As opposed to Yale’s $30,000 grant over 10 years, USC offers its eligible applicants a $50,000 grant paid out monthly over seven years.

The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, offers a forgivable loan of $7,500 to employees that phases out over six years. Penn’s program is a bit more complex, too, in that the funding may only be used toward closing costs, down payments and certain home renovations.

Penn officials see their homeownership program, called Home Ownership Services, as part of a broader initiative to enhance economic development in a 15-block stretch of West Philadelphia near campus, said its director, Oluwatoyin Adegbite-Moore.

Such specifics are what make the simplicity of Yale’s offerings a thing of beauty, Morand said.

“[Our program] is very straightforward,” he said. “You buy a house, you get money.”

Lauzier added that many universities across the country have seen benefits from faculty and staff rental assistance programs. He said schools such as Cornell, New York University and Stanford have implemented rental housing assistance programs by acquiring nearby properties and setting rent below market value.

Though many people who occupy the middle-class income range have less of a need for rental assistance programs, areas that have lower income levels similar to New Haven have benefitted from such programs, Lauzier said. As a result, the universities that run the rental programs have “cast a much broader net” in terms of the diverse level of incomes the tenants compose.

“The focus on solely-for-sale housing as a part of faculty-staff housing program is not where it should end,” Lauzier said. “Many of the people in the middle incomes can already afford to buy a home.”

But for Yale’s part, University officials have never seen the advantage to offering a rental assistance program.

“What’s obviously true is that there’s no such thing as one size fits all,” Morand acknowledged. “And what works in New Haven with Yale is not necessarily going to be what works elsewhere.”

TOO BIG TO FAIL

Yale’s homeowners have grown in number, though slowly, in recent years. Yale signed up more 600 homebuyers in the first decade of the program. By January 2007, the program had over 750. Then the housing bubble burst.

As of September 2009, Yale officials had signed up 917. There are currently about 950 signed up.

John Cuozzo, a partner at New Haven-based Press/Cuozzo Realty, said New Haven residential property values have fallen 24 percent since 2005. Still, Morand said, the resilience of the New Haven economy as a whole ultimately has prevented the program from coming to a standstill.

Yet the nationwide housing bubble burst that affected Yale was not felt at USC, whose program has “ticked up” in the last few months, McNeal said, adding that USC employees have taken advantage of the low housing prices in traditionally expensive areas. (Penn, on the other hand, had to eliminate one of its homeownership assistance programs, called the Guaranteed Mortgage Program, in December 2008.)

Even so, Yale unions spokesman Evan Cobb GRD ’05 said he hopes Yale steps up its commitment to the program, given the current economic climate.

“It’s the sort of thing obviously with cutbacks and budget challenges, we would hope that the program is minimally unaffected though homeownership is decreasing,” he said. “In a moment like this, the University could be extremely helpful.”

And some local realtors said Yale could have done more to help the city withstand the economic downturn. Della Valle said given that “all of New Haven is suffering,” Yale should increase the number of neighborhoods where participants can buy homes.

ONHSA officials said that since the beginning, Yale has already invested $22.5 million in grants and the program has yielded a return of over $150 million to the local economy. Morand said Tuesday that New Haven’s real estate market is “good” and so Yale officials do not need to add to the Homebuyer Program’s benefits.

While New Haven may be riding through the economic downturn, Saunders may not have fared as well, having accepted a voluntary layoff during the University’s several rounds of budget cuts last year. She plans to retire soon.

Even so, Saunders added, she had a good experience with the program.

“There were no problems,” she said. “It was very helpful. Buying in New Haven is an absolute must.”

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