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Big savings for the nest

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has called it "the best kept secret in

Suffolk County" - a program under which first-time home buyers can receive up

to $35,000 in assistance, as long as their employers are the first to kick in

some money.

But only 30 homeowners in Suffolk have taken advantage of the program in

the five years it has been available, and Levy and other public officials hope

that is about to change.

Buoyed by a change in income requirements allowing more people to become

eligible, Levy and other officials are beginning to hit the hustings to make

prospective home buyers aware of the Employer Assisted Housing Program and

convince their employers to join.

"We've kicked this program into high gear," Levy said. "We're going to tour

the county and speak to mid to larger businesses to let them know about this

best-kept secret in Suffolk County."

Here's how the program works in Suffolk: If a participating employer gives

an employee $3,000 to be applied to the purchase of a home, the worker can then

apply to the county for a loan of up to $12,000 to be applied to the purchase.

Payments are deferred and, if the employee lives in the house for five years,

the loan is forgiven.

The employee can also apply to the New York State Affordable Housing Corp.

for an additional $5,000 deferred-payment loan that will be forgiven if the

employee lives in the house for 10 years. And if the house needs repairs, the

buyer can apply for a $15,000 loan with similar terms, bringing the total

amount of aid to $35,000.

Great offer, few takers

With so much aid possible, why hasn't the program been more popular?

Because, Levy said, the rules had frozen out most prospective candidates.

"In the past, the program had such a low income threshold and such a low

price ceiling for the price of the house that it was unable to be used by

anyone," Levy said.

But last July, the rules were changed to raise the maximum home price from

$275,000 to $380,000, roughly the median price of a Suffolk County home. So, a

family of four can earn up to $71,100 to obtain the maximum $35,000. But a

family of four earning up to $106,600 can leverage the employer's $3,000 to as

much as $23,000 in aid.

In Nassau the house price is slightly higher, $380,495, but the income

requirements are the same. In Nassau, the program is administered by the Long

Island Housing Partnership; in five years, nine home buyers have participated.

In Suffolk, about 30 individuals have closed on houses using the program,

and 74 households are in the process. And Levy hopes he can persuade more

employers to join and spread the word to their employees.

Levy said that about 20 companies have signed on, including the North

Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, Catholic Health Services and Brookhaven

National Laboratory.

"It's in the long-term interest of our employers to participate in this

program to help retain and recruit a young, talented workforce," Levy said.

"One of the biggest complaints from the business community is a lack of young

people to fill their job slots because they've moved off the Island. This

program is designed to do something about it."

Employers reap benefits, too

Difficulty in recruiting is what drove North Shore-LIJ Health System to

sign on to the program for its employees.

"It's very difficult to recruit nurses and doctors from out of the New York

area because of the high cost of living here," said Terry Lynam, vice

president of public relations. But, up until the relaxation of the

requirements, he said only a handful of employees had used the program.

Relaxing the eligibility was "certainly a step in the right direction," Lynam

said.

One employee of North Shore-LIJ Health System found out about the program

from a co-worker in late 2004 when she was looking to purchase a co-op as a

first-time buyer.

"The program was a wonderful thing, and I might not have been able to [buy

a home] if it hadn't been for that," said Marie Marrero, 63, an administrative

assistant. She received the $3,000 from her company and an additional $3,000

from Long Island Housing Partnership. She said she could have gotten more money

in state grants had her home needed repairs, but it did not. Marrero, who

makes less than $50,000 a year, closed last April on the $112,000 home in East

Meadow.

"I only had to put $6,000 down on my own," she said.

At Northrop Grumman Corp., employees can take advantage of a company

program, started last year, along with the county program. The company is

offering a $5,000 grant to employees in a certain salary range, who are

first-time home buyers and who go through Long Island Housing Partnership's

educational program.

"Young employees could go elsewhere because they could do better on the

housing side," public relations spokesman John Vosilla said. "That's not a good

thing for our company, so we tried to figure out ways to help them and keep

the investment."

To the program's backers in the Suffolk County Legislature, there is just

one possible downside.

"The only detraction is that some of the employers are afraid that there

will be a rush of all their employees and they'll spend too much money on it,"

said Jim Morgo, Suffolk County commissioner of economic development and

workforce housing. "But that won't happen because employees still need to find

a home - and at $380,000, it's still not that easy to find a home on Long

Island."

How employer, county and state aid can add up

Here's how an employee can parlay a $3,000 grant from an employer into $35,000

worth of help in buying a house.

Employer gives

employee $3,000

Employee can apply for deferred-payment loan from Suffolk County $12,000

The loan is forgiven if the employee lives in the house for five years.

Employee can apply for deferred-payment loan from New York State $5,000

The loan is forgiven if the employee lives in the house for 10 years;

partial forgiveness begins after five years.

Employee can also apply for an additional deferred-payment loan from New

York State for home repairs $15,000

Same 10-year forgiveness terms as for purchase

Total $35,000

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