From: Gretchen Fehrenbacher, The Columbian, Vancouver, Washington
Published September 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Lumber Mill Helps Employees With Housing-Finance Program

VANCOUVER, Washington — Bob and Sharon Lewis had long wondered how they could help employees at their Columbia Vista lumber mill become homeowners. Then at a breakfast early last year, a guest speaker from national mortgage financier Fannie Mae explained how an employer-assisted housing finance program could work.

Sixteen months later, Columbia Vista introduced employees to its own program. With Fannie Mae's free technical help and additional assistance from Seattle-based HomeStreet Bank, Columbia Vista is offering eligible first-time buyers the opportunity to get interest-free, forgivable loans of up to $5,000 to make a down payment on a home purchase. The bank kicks in discounts on loan fees as part of its statewide Hometown Home Loan Program.

The company funds the program with a $15,000 annual allocation.

"For a lot of people, the biggest hurdle is often the down payment," said Bob Lewis, president of the lumber mill that employs 62 workers at four sites in Vancouver and the Portland area.

"As a company that makes products for home construction, it makes sense to try to make it easier for our own employees to become homeowners," he said.

The program is also good for business, as national trends show. Increasingly, employers are offering grants and loans as a way to keep workers, according to a report in USA Today. As low interest rates and rising demand have propelled home prices higher, employers have found workers often unable to live nearby.

For Bob and Sharon Lewis, the money spent on their first-time buyers program encourages good workers to stay at the company and become vested members in the community. That holds true whether they buy in Clark County or other locations.

Jason Kent, the company's safety and environmental manager, was among the first to apply and win one of three $5,000 allotments.

This past spring, Kent bought a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house for $192,000 in Washougal.

"I thought it was a great opportunity for the company to invest in me, and a great opportunity for me to buy a house," said Kent, 35.

Before he moved in April, Kent had been renting in Portland. He's now paying about $200 more a month on a mortgage loan, but he's living locally, reducing his commute.

Another employee, Brian Johnson, bought a house in North Bonneville after 18 years with the company. Johnson, 36, is a single father.

Columbia Vista works through Seattle-based HomeStreet Bank in offering the program. While Columbia Vista provides its workers monetary assistance, the bank kicks in other benefits: a 50 percent reduction on the loan fee; discounted closing costs for home inspections, appraisals and escrow fees; and home-buying classes.

The bank also offers reduced-fee benefits to workers who already have houses, and want to refinance.

Columbia Vista has deep ties to the community, having begun operations here in 1952. Over the years, it has been identified with forward-thinking practices.

Among them, it has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a leading buyer of alternative power, voluntarily paying a higher price for 15 percent of its electricity. The company has also participated in several federal programs and gained special certification for its attainment of high industry standards.

In the new home-buyers program, Columbia Vista employees must have been with the company at least three years. Also, the employee must complete a first-time home-buyers training class. For buyers who stay in their houses for at least five years and stay employed with the company for that period, the loans are written off by the company.

If those conditions aren't met, loans are pro-rated at 20 percent a year. For example, a worker leaving the company after four years would repay $1,000 of the original amount. However, a worker could purchase a different house within the five-year period and apply whatever remained of the original loan to the new residence.

HomeStreet Bank hopes to build other corporate relationship and also has worked with Wendel Family Dental Center.

This is the bank's 10th year in working with employers to provide home-buying benefits. So far, the bank's loan program has been used by more than 5,000 people in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii, with 2,200 of them first-time buyers.

Source: The Columbian, Vancouver, Washington

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