LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Would you want to live next to your co-workers?
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
MARTÍNEZ: You're cool, Leila, but no.
FADEL: What if your employer provided the housing, and it was more affordable? Would you live next to me then? A growing number of businesses are doing this because they say the country's housing shortage is making it harder to recruit and keep employees. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the story of one company neighborhood taking shape in Indiana.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Last year, this flat, open space in Spencer, Ind., was a wheat field just down the road from a Cook Medical manufacturing plant. Now it's a brand-new subdivision.
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LUDDEN: There are two rows of clapboard ranch houses, 14 so far. Construction crews are pouring concrete driveways. At the end of the dirt road, Tommie Jones is here to see the three-bed, two-bath home she's buying from her employer. It's her first time inside.
TOMMIE JONES: It's so beautiful.
LUDDEN: There's a cathedral ceiling, open kitchen with sleek, white cabinets, a glass door to the backyard.
JONES: Look at my yard and my view. It's gorgeous.
LUDDEN: Jones is a quality control inspector at Cook. At first, she wasn't sure she wanted to see work colleagues on her off hours.
JONES: But they're all super nice. You know, I can see us helping each other out if we need it and that it's going to be a community, and that's how we're going to live, I believe. I hope.
LUDDEN: Cook is offering these homes to employees at below-market price. And for Jones, that's an incredible opportunity. She's 47 but has never been able to afford to live on her own. Right now, she's squeezed in with her sister's family. With extra pay for the swing shift and being a trainer, she makes just over $20 an hour.
JONES: I would have never imagined that I could have a new house on what I make, but I can. And I get a little emotional. I mean, I'm just a normal person, but I've never had anything like this.
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LUDDEN: At the Cook plant, a wide door rolls up to enter the manufacturing area, where employees wear blue and white booties, caps and gowns. They produce medical devices like catheters and needles. It's a booming industry, and these are solid jobs that don't require a college degree. But a lot of these workers can hardly afford to live in this area. The town of Spencer is tiny, just a few blocks around a central square. The whole county is about 20,000 people. There hasn't been much new housing for years, and what has been built is too pricy. Cook employees were having to live farther out with longer commutes, says Steve Ferguson. He's chairman of the board at Cook headquarters in Bloomington.
STEVE FERGUSON: We're by far the largest employer in the county, and you're trying to hire young people to come, and there's no place to live.
LUDDEN: There's a growing list of employers who face this problem and have also decided to build their own housing. It includes big names like Disney and Meta, the meatpacker JBS, local school systems and health care providers. At Cook, Ferguson says simply raising pay is not the answer. It won't create new housing. And he didn't want rental units. He says it's too messy to be both employer and landlord. He's thinking bigger.
FERGUSON: You don't build communities with apartments and rentals, and people don't build wealth living in apartments.
LUDDEN: The new houses go for between 188- and $212,000. To get them that low, Cook cut a deal. The builder works at scale with no risk since there's a guaranteed buyer and no realtor fees. People who still need help paying - like Tommie Jones - can get it from a federal loan program.
FERGUSON: We'd like to build them a house - 1,500 square feet - that they could live there and raise their kids and live there their entire life 'cause that's what brought stability to us originally.
KATIE FALLON: I don't think companies want to do this. I don't think that this will solve the problem.
LUDDEN: Katie Fallon studies housing policy at the Urban Institute, and she gets the pressure that's driving companies to step in, but she says the affordable housing shortage is too vast for these businesses alone to fix.
FALLON: We have desperately needed housing supply for 15, 20 years. I mean, the rate of housing production has just slowed so drastically over time.
LUDDEN: Fallon says states and cities also need to build lots more housing, but anything that adds to supply is good. In Spencer, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce thinks it could be transformative. Marce King has helped Cook by organizing a lottery for would-be buyers, and she recently held an open house for interested workers and their families.
MARCE KING: And it was kind of surreal for me, personally, to be in that moment.
LUDDEN: She's a lifelong resident who's watched the population shrink for a decade.
KING: And for this young couple to walk through the door and they were prepped and ready and they had their checklist and they were looking and they had smiles on their faces, and to see the hope - I mean, it's so exciting.
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LUDDEN: The long-term plan is for 99 houses here and a couple hundred near a different plant, maybe more if there are still workers wanting to buy. Ron Walker heads up this project for Cook and says there is a requirement that employees live in the homes, not rent them out.
RON WALKER: You are not required to remain a Cook employee once you own the home, but if you try to sell the home within the first three years, we have the option to buy it back at the price we sold it to you. And we're doing that to keep people from trying to flip these homes in the short order.
LUDDEN: Meanwhile, these first houses will be move-in ready by summer.
SHELBY BIXLER: It's so much bigger. We're in a tiny, little bedroom right now.
RYAN BIXLER: Yeah, it looks really good. Yeah, this looks awesome.
LUDDEN: Shelby and Ryan Bixler are both quality control inspectors at Cook. And to come here, they just sold another house, an old one out in the country that needed lots of updating.
S BIXLER: There just wasn't much on the marketplace. And so we had to just grab what there was.
LUDDEN: They thought twice about trading the country for a subdivision with houses so close but decided it made sense.
S BIXLER: Living right next to people I think will be fun, especially as our daughter is able to start playing with friends and neighbor friends and having people over.
LUDDEN: And they already know and like one neighbor - Tommie Jones, right across the street. Back at her house, Jones says her things are already boxed up to go, and she's been buying wall decorations for months, planning where to put everything.
JONES: TV over there, family pictures probably over here.
LUDDEN: And she'll have a room ready for her niece and nephew to stay over. Jones dreams of the day she moves.
JONES: I can't wait till I come in. I'm going to lay down on the floor and just nap (laughter) 'cause it's mine, and I can.
LUDDEN: Then she'll cook a meal for the entire family, she says, in her very own kitchen.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Spencer, Ind.
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