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May 6, 2024

Working from home: In recruiting bid, retirement home offers workers a housing bargain

Photo / Tim Greenway Linda Rowe, lead certified residential medication aid, left, and Cristy Williams, HR manager, who works with employees on housing and a range of benefits, at the Maine Lodge at Ocean View at Falmouth.

Day in and day out, Linda Rowe drove nearly an hour-and-a-half from home to work — and then from work to home at the end of each shift. Over and over it went for two years. Now, her commute takes all of eight minutes.

Thanks to her employer, OceanView at Falmouth retirement community, Rowe lives in a comfortable four-bedroom home close to work at below-market rates. With the overheated housing market becoming an obstacle to attracting and retaining employees, OceanView bought a single-family house last year and rents it out to up to four employees at an affordable price.

Rowe no longer has to make the tedious drive from West Paris to Falmouth every day. She also swapped a run-down rental house in western Maine for a comfy one with plenty of space and an eight-acre parcel with stone walls and lots of trees.

With an affordable rent, she doesn’t stress about her finances. If she had rented an area apartment at market rates, she wonders if she would have ended up having to choose between paying an electric bill or buying food because so much of her paycheck would have gone to rent.

“Moving here has made it so it’s affordable to live,” she says while seated at a table in the dining area of the house, located on a country road in Cumberland. “You can eat and do the things we normally would before COVID and inflation happened.”

Benefits plus

For OceanView, affordable housing is one additional benefit it can offer to draw and keep employees in a tight labor market. The company offers other benefits such as generous health care coverage, a 401(k) that matches up to $4,000 a year, five weeks of paid vacation for new hires, and perks such as the opportunity to stay at the company’s timeshare at the Sunday River resort in Newry or its lakeside house in Rangeley.

“There are people who would love to work and live in this area, but they can’t afford to,” says Cristy Williams, OceanView’s human resources manager. “Our goal was if we can offer housing, we might get the person from Bangor or farther away who wants to move to the southern part of the state, but there’s no way they can afford it. Besides supporting our existing employees, it’s a recruiting tool for others.”

Many Maine businesses have offered housing to employees for years, but primarily on a seasonal basis. Businesses in tourist destinations such as Bar Harbor provide places for seasonal employees. Wild blueberry growers make housing available to migrant workers during the annual summer harvest. Wreath-making firms in eastern Maine do the same in late fall.

But what is not so common is businesses offering permanent housing to full-time employees at rates that won’t drain their bank accounts.

Priced out

Rowe loves her job at OceanView and hated the dilapidated house she rented in West Paris, but the tight and pricey market prevented her from moving to the Portland area. She looked for houses and rental apartments, but the prices were simply too high among the slim pickings that were available.

After looking around, Rowe figured it would cost her $5,000 or more simply to move into an apartment, and more than $2,000 a month for rent. Even if she could afford it, she had doubts she could even get an apartment against other people who were lining up and willing to bid up the price.

Upon learning about OceanView’s house, she jumped at the chance and moved in just over a year ago. She has a nice living environment and is close to OceanView, a retirement community with independent-living cottages and apartments and assisted living and memory care facilities. Rowe works as a certified residential medication aide and caregiver in OceanView’s memory care unit, and she was recently promoted to supervisor.

She pays $1,200 a month for a two-room bedroom suite and use of the kitchen, living room, yard and other common areas. Her 24-year-old son pays $900 a month for his room, as does Mya Gerry, both of whom also work in the memory-care unit.

Before moving to the OceanView house, Gerry, 24, was living in a basement room at her mother’s home in Bowdoinham along with her three brothers. She had a newborn son and the basement would sometimes get wet after heavy rains. Gerry worked per diem at OceanView at the time, and she felt she was going through a “quarter-life crisis” raising her son, Bentley, on her own with no savings and no idea what to do.

She knew Rowe from work, who suggested she move into the house. Living in the house allows her to work full-time and raise her son in a secure environment she can call her own. More importantly, she has a pathway to a bright future.

“Before, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life,” she says, tears coming to her eyes. “I didn’t have a plan.”

Recruiting tool

OceanView decided to buy a house for employees after noticing that some workers were leaving because they couldn’t afford to live in the area anymore with such steep housing prices. The retirement community bought the ranch-style home in Cumberland for $705,000 in early 2023.

OceanView is now looking to add to its housing stock for workers. It’s keeping an eye out for an apartment building, another home that could house multiple employees, or perhaps build apartments of its own. Not everyone is cut out for a roommate situation like the Cumberland house, Williams says, so it might be more advantageous to go the apartment route.

Whatever the case, OceanView considers housing a worthy investment. With 210 employees in nursing, dining, maintenance, housekeeping, transportation, business and other departments, OceanView is always looking for ways to attract employees.

“Besides supporting our existing employees it’s a recruiting tool for others,” Williams says.

With home and rental prices so high, it’s not a stretch to say Maine has a housing crisis. The median home price is $353,000 statewide and $525,000 in Cumberland County, according to the latest statistics from Maine Association of Realtors. Zillow and other popular real estate market websites list the median rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland at $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

Those kinds of numbers, along with high interest rates, have prompted some organizations and politicians to do what they can to ease the burden. Bowdoin College, for example, launched a forgivable loan program this year to assist employees with the purchase of a first home in the Brunswick area. U.S Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, recently announced that he was joining federal legislation that would establish a new home loan program for law enforcement officers, firefighters, medical first responders and teachers to help them be able to afford to live in the communities where they work.

At OceanView, Rowe gushes about the housing program. “I’m a huge advocate for working for OceanView and the housing,” she says. “If I hear anybody talk about a housing situation, I say you may want to look into this because it’s a great opportunity.”

Besides, she adds, her travel time — and her gas bill — have dropped to near nothing now that her commute to work is under 10 minutes: “I absolutely love the drive.”

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