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New Partnership to Assist Prospective Homeowners

Freddie Mac to collaborate with county government, the school system and five private companies to enable their employees to buy houses.

The county government, school system and five major Arlington companies are teaming up with Freddie Mac to help their employees purchase homes in the community.

Freddie Mac will provide the participating employers with resources and technical advice, and workers will be eligible for lower mortgages, down payment assistance and credit counseling.

Representatives of Freddie Mac said the new initiative will assist between 125 and 250 families buy houses in Arlington in the next three years.

"Employees put into [this] innovative partnership will experience opportunities to better understand and navigate the complicated house-buying process," Robert Tsein Jr., a senior vice president at Freddie Mac, said during a June 6 press conference.

The five private employers are: AHC Inc.; Ethiopian Community Development Council Inc.; George Mason University; Marymount University; and Virginia Hospital Center.

AS HOME PRICES across the county have skyrocketed in recent years — with the average Arlington single-family dwelling having spiked from $224,000 in 2001 to currently $541,000 — many teachers, police officers and firefighters have been forced to move to cheaper outlying counties.

In many ways the county is a victim of its own success. By fostering a highly desirable community that combines some of the best elements of suburban and urban living, Arlington officials have unwillingly priced out public servants.

"It’s a double-edged sword," said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). "So many people want to live in Arlington that by the laws of supply and demand the price of housing has become unattainable" for teachers and public safety officers.

County officials, bound by the state’s strict property-rights laws, have struggled for years to find new avenues that enable its public employees to live in the community they serve. To combat the shortage of local government and school workers owning homes in Arlington, the county first created a home-buyer benefit program in 2002.

The county also has awarded more than 200 government and school employees with forgivable loans of $4,500, through the Live Near Your Work initiative, enabling them to buy houses in Arlington.

This year the loans will be increased to $5,400 and at least 50 people are expected to enroll, said Doug Myrick, the county’s homeownership program coordinator. Employees who move to Arlington as renters are eligible for a $500 grant.

"Many low- and middle-income workers are not going to be able to purchase homes here" without the aid of such programs, Myrick added.

YET IT IS no longer just the county government that is concerned by the number of its employees who have to live in Loudoun or Prince William counties in order to afford a home. Businesses are experiencing a loss in worker productivity due to the long commutes, said Freddie Mac’s Tsein.

This has spurred private companies, such as the five partaking in the collaboration with Freddie Mac, to develop fresh ways for their employees to buy houses close to their jobs. In response, county officials expect two to three additional Arlington companies will join the partnership in each of the subsequent three years.

Having people live closer to their work will also help reduce congestion in the region and improve the air quality, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said. "When people have to face long commutes it’s not good for anyone," he added.

Recently the county has begun working more closely with developers to persuade them to sell some properties at below-market rates to public employees.

When the IDI Group converted the Dominion Terrace apartments into condominiums, they sold 40 of the 58 units to teachers and public safety officers at a discount of at least $10,000. Similarly, county and school workers were able to purchase condos in KSI Development’s Shirlington Overlook at a significant reduction.

HOUSING ACTIVISTS applauded the new measure, but said that much more needs to be done if the county wants to retain its most capable teachers, police officers and fire fighters.

"If goal is 250 people in next few years, it certainly does meet the needs of public employees in Arlington," said Kathryn Scruggs, head of the Civic Federation’s housing committee. "It’s a very good thing, but I want to see a much bigger response to the need."

Earlier this year the Civic Federation passed a resolution calling on the county to create a housing coalition for public servants.

Excess land on school grounds and county-owned sites are prime locations for cheap apartments and townhouses for teachers and county employees, Scruggs said.