Young and nestless: Helping with housing

HARTFORD, Conn. — Chicago native Juan Hernandez fell in love with Hartford while attending Trinity College and decided to stay after graduation. But like many members of the millennial generation, he’s learned that affording a place to live can be an expensive proposition.

Hernandez and his girlfriend pay $1,600 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment. The grace period for his student loan payments expires this month. An aide to a city council member, the 25-year-old Hernandez plans to attend law school eventually. While he thinks it might make more financial sense to buy a home in Hartford. Hernandez is questioning whether he can qualify for a loan.

“If you’re not working on Wall Street, how are you going to come up with that down payment?” said Hernandez, who considers himself lucky to have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees with only about $15,000 in outstanding student loans. “I know people who graduated with $20,000, $40,000, $50,000 in loans. To be completely honest, most of them went back home.”

Realizing that millennials like Hernandez are burdened with debt, a difficult job market, weak wage growth and a less affordable housing market than their parents, some states are looking to keep educated young professionals within their borders for years to come by helping out with their housing costs.

Initiatives like mortgage down-payment assistance, rent subsidies, urban homesteading incentives, partial student loan reimbursement and even “millennial villages” are being considered across the country to help professionals put down roots in communities. Some programs already in place are being embraced by members of what’s become a coveted population because of their sheer numbers, their education levels and their ability to spur urban revitalization and economic growth.

The first phase of Maryland’s “You’ve Earned It” program ran out of money in less than two months because of demand. Now in its second phase, the program provides a discounted mortgage rate and down payment assistance to college graduates with more than $25,000 in student debt and who buy a home in certain regions of the state.

“Kids are struggling because they spend all this money on their education and then when they come back out to the real world, the jobs they get only pay $30,000, $40,000,” said Hartford state Rep. Angel Arce, who would like to create a similar program in Connecticut. “These kids get their education in the state of Connecticut. They’re from the state of Connecticut. Let’s find a way to keep their knowledge, keep them here in the state of Connecticut.”

A bill Connecticut lawmakers are considering would provide a financial incentive to recent college graduates to rent or buy their first home in certain urban areas. To be eligible, the millennial must have at least $20,000 in student debt. Those who meet the qualifications could deduct up to 10 percent of their annual rental or mortgage payments from their personal income liability, as long as the deduction doesn’t exceed $1,200 annually.

The median price of a home in Hartford is about $111,200; the statewide median is $246,000.

Mark Sargent, 22, a public relations specialist in Mansfield, Connecticut, who is shouldering about $65,000 in student debt and would like to buy a home, said he has seen many of his fellow University of Connecticut graduates leave the state for places where they believe there’s more opportunity. A housing incentive program, he said, might persuade them to stay.

“Connecticut is missing out on a huge opportunity with all these millennials out here, right in our backyard,” he said.

Some cities are using targeted marketing. Columbus, Ohio, bought ads in Washington, D.C., subway stations last year to attract young professionals, highlighting the lower cost of living. A few years ago in Niagara Falls, New York, city officials began offering up to $7,000 in student loan reimbursement to encourage young professionals to move downtown.

Rhode Island’s new Ocean State Grad Grant program makes awards for mortgage down payments to recent college graduates. Recipients can get 3.5 percent of their first home’s purchase price, up to $7,000.

Travis Escobar, 25, president and co-founder of the Millennial Professional Group of Rhode Island and a 2013 graduate of Rhode Island College, said the incentive will help encourage young professionals to stay in Rhode Island, where the average student carries about $30,000 in debt.

Homeownership seems impossible when you’re living on your own, often underemployed and making student loan payments, he said.

“Buying a house? You’re not thinking about that,” said Escobar, who lives in Providence.

A typical member of the class of 2013 graduated owing $27,300, according the College Board. That’s an increase of $5,000 in current dollars since 2000, or a 22 percent jump. Meanwhile, those graduates who immediately pursue a master’s degree often owe a combined $70,000.

A survey released in November by the National Association of Realtors found many millennials are forced to put off homeownership. A quarter of the first-time homebuyers surveyed said saving for a down payment was their biggest challenge, while a majority said school loans hurt their ability to set aside cash.

In a report released this month, the Special Senate Committee on Housing in Massachusetts noted large numbers of millennials are moving to the Boston area. They are sharing rented apartments in the region’s traditional housing stock, which includes triple-decker homes, duplexes and garden apartments, and that has priced out families. The price of triple-decker units increased 95 percent between 2009 and 2015, the report found.

The report recommends the state develop “millennial villages.” Possibly located in renovated industrial buildings, the villages would include everything from micro apartments to multi-bedroom units to draw millennials out of the older housing stock and free up that traditional housing for working families at more reasonable rents and prices.

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