When Patrick Loney, MBA, RN, manager of the adult psych unit at Meriter Hospital, transferred from Chicago to accept his position, the lure of the American dream in urbane Madison factored heavily into the decision. He couldn't have timed his job switch any better.
Serendipitously, once he and his wife seriously began discussing buying a house, Meriter Hospital announced their Healthy Neighborhood Initiative, which included a $10,000 forgivable loan to employees interested in living in the surrounding Greenbush-Vilas neighborhood. In exchange for the loan, employees must remain with the facility for 5 years, keep a primary residence in the neighborhood and commit to upkeep of the home.
The program was open to staffers at any level. According to the hospital, 16 employees expressed interest and half the applicants were on the nursing staff. No employees have closed on a home purchase yet but several are going through the required home buying education course.
Further sweetening the deal is a clause in the 2011 budget proposal by the city of Madison pledging an additional $10,000 for down-payment assistance. If this passes, Loney and other Meriter Hospital employees may be eligible for a forgivable $20,000 housing loan.
Greenbush-Vilas, the 1.5 by 1.5 mile neighborhood surrounding the hospital, is populated by older homes. A mix of families and University of Wisconsin students renting houses co-mingled for generations.
"We've have a great mix for a long time," said Fran Petonic, president of the Meriter Foundation. "As students began moving into high-rises and the housing stock continued aging, our CEO Jim Woodward said if we didn't reinvest, our neighborhood would become more challenged. We wouldn't have the housing stock to attract families and he thought it was our responsibility to maintain a safe neighborhood for patients."
The facility participated in an exploratory survey, along with another area hospital and University of Wisconsin Medical Center, to gauge employee interest in some kind of Madison housing assistance program. Nearly one-quarter of Meriter's employees indicated interest in residing in downtown Madison.
The survey results weren't entirely surprising. In 1996, Money magazine identified Madison as the best place to live in the U.S. It has consistently ranked near the top of the best-places list in subsequent years, with the city's low unemployment rate a major contributor.
Along with the publicity of Madison's desirability came a rise in home prices. Petonic said a 1,200-1,400 square foot home in Madison averages about $180,000 to $250,000. Relative to the rest of the region, those costs are high and many younger employees commute from outlying areas.
Creating Healthy Employees
In addition to its reputation as an economic and cultural hub, Madison is known among Midwesterners as Wisconsin's healthiest city.
This emphasis on healthy lifestyles and living large didn't go unnoticed by Loney during his job search. Having completed the required financial education to obtain the loan, he and his wife are now working with a realtor to find their dream home.
"I wanted to be part of an engaged group of employees. I like the idea of biking to work, not commuting by car and being able to walk to great restaurants. I'm excited to find a house with a backyard for my dog and a big garage and basement."
Keeping a physically and mentally fit employee-base in the area positions Meriter Hospital for success as well.
"We already have an active employee population who does bike to work," said Petonic. "It's natural we would support healthy lifestyles. As an employer, it's great to have close employees for emergencies like snow."
Robin Hocevar is senior regional editor at ADVANCE.