The Williams administration, seeking to induce more District government employees to live in the city, is in the early stages of formulating a proposal to hike financial assistance for workers trying to buy homes in Washington.
The benefits currently available to District employees -- as much as $1,500 to help cover a down payment, and a deferred loan of up to $10,000 to purchase a first home -- have not been raised since they were first offered 13 years ago, said Jalal Greene, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
"Given the current cost of housing and the fact that it has risen drastically over the past five years, those benefits that were attractive in 1999 and 1998 are starting to be a lot less attractive," he said. "We perhaps need to update the program."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has made it one of his top priorities to increase the District's population by as much as 100,000 over the next decade. Nearly half of the District's 30,600 government employees live outside the city.
As part of a campaign to encourage more of them to move into the city, Greene's department is hosting two seminars for workers this month to provide information about the available benefits and the process of buying a home.
Housing benefits for employees of neighboring governments vary. Fairfax County offers financial assistance, in the form of loans of up to $20,000, to government employees who are buying their first homes. Montgomery County has no assistance program for county employees, although qualifying workers can apply for aid that is available to the general public.
Union leaders in the District said the government assistance is welcome, but they added that it is far too little to help with today's home prices.
"The housing market has gone through the roof," said Police Sgt. Gregory Greene, head of the labor committee for the District Fraternal Order of Police. "It's hard for officers to live in the city because of the cost of housing -- they're going to need incentives," he said. Greene estimated that only about 800 of the District's 3,400 police officers reside in Washington.
Ray Sneed, president of District Firefighters Association Local 36, said the benefits should be based on a percentage of a home's cost. "You know what houses are selling for?" he asked. "$1,500 for a down payment? That won't get a real estate agent out of bed."
Of the union's 1,450 members, Sneed estimated that more than half live outside the city. "Especially the older ones, the ones raising the families," said Sneed.
In 1980, then-Mayor Marion Barry initiated a residency requirement for new city employees, a provision that prompted criticism from police union leaders and public school advocates who said it made it more difficult to hire officers and teachers.
Congress rescinded the rule in November 1988, over the objections of Barry, who contended that the District's tax base would suffer with the migration of city employees to the suburbs.
Over the past five years, the number of government employees who have taken advantage of the benefits the District offers to spur homeownership has been a relatively small portion of the total workforce. In 1999, 69 workers enrolled in the program, while 48 did last year. "We'd always like to see more people take advantage of it," Jalal Greene said.
Those who qualify for the program are full-time employees who have spent a year on the job, except for police officers, who are eligible as soon as they are hired. Employees who already own homes in the District do not qualify for the program.
Greene said he is still evaluating how much to increase the benefits. He said the administration's proposal would have to be presented to the D.C. Council. "My tentative plan would be sometime in the fall," he said.
The city's seminar for government employees will be held Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. at 801 North Capitol St. NE, in the 9th floor boardroom. A seminar for police officers will be held June 29 from 10 a.m. to noon in Room 3106 of police headquarters, 300 Indiana Ave. NW. Employees should call 202-442-7256 to sign up.