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With gaming help, union puts owning a home within members' reach

24 November 2008

By Michael J. Mishak, Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- When the Culinary Union opened contract talks with Strip casino operators last year, labor leaders came to the table with one overarching complaint: Homeownership, a core promise of union membership, had fallen out of the reach of many members.

So the Culinary asked the gaming industry to chip in to a fund that would help its workers buy homes.

On Thursday, after months of seed work, the union announced the launch of a housing program, making $2 million in loan assistance available to first-time homebuyers who are covered under Culinary contracts. Half the money comes from casino company contributions and half comes from a state grant.

Under the program, members can get up to $20,000 in down-payment assistance but must first qualify for a mortgage, contribute 1 percent of the purchase price and complete an eight-hour homebuyer education course. Borrowers must repay the down-payment loan when the home is sold or refinanced.

The Culinary says the program, modeled on the state's own first-time homebuyer program, could help stabilize the Las Vegas housing market, estimating it will leverage as much as $80 million in new mortgage lending. Nevada has had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation for the past 20 months.

"This is exactly the medicine our ailing housing market needs," Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, who advanced the state matching grant in the last legislative session, said in a statement.

The program has a director and will be housed at the nonprofit Nevada Partners in North Las Vegas.

MGM Mirage, the state's largest private employer, had tried to address the union's worries about homeownership last year, planning a community of affordable single-family homes and condominiums for industry workers, retail and a casino on a 166-acre site in Jean. The residents would have been able to take company shuttle buses to work in Las Vegas. But the plan fell through when the real estate market collapsed.

Since then, the economy has taken its toll on casino workers. The union says its members have been hit particularly hard by the subprime mortgage crisis and is looking for ways to help those who were victims of predatory lending. The Culinary estimates that up to 10 percent of its 60,000 members have lost jobs or had their work hours reduced in the economic downturn.

The housing program is a bright spot.

"Our goal is to have people buy homes," Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said. "And if you have the potential, there is no better time to buy" because of falling prices. The median house price is down 32 percent from last year.

Taylor said he expects the fund to grow over time, with gradually increasing employer contributions.

"It's a start. It's the Volkswagen before you get into the Cadillac," he said. "We'll work out the kinks, we'll learn, we'll grow and we'll get better."

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.


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