November 15, 2006 - For the past year, a 36-year-old Marana police officer and his wife have hunted for their first home but came up with nothing.

"The costs of homes in Marana is overwhelming," said Mario Williams, who rides a horse in Marana Police Department's mounted patrol unit.

A Marana officer for almost three years, Williams earns about $40,000 annually. Bills, car payments and poor budgeting had made buying a home seem like a pipedream, he said, adding that it soon could become a reality.

The town of Marana recently began workshops for town employees needing assistance in the purchase of a home. With the cooperation of lenders and real estate agencies, the town will provide up to $12,500 of a home's price. The town gets its money back when the home is sold, plus appreciation.

The program allows employees and their families to get a house for less, and Marana gets employees living in town, officials said.

Williams and his wife currently rent a three-bedroom house in Gladden Farms for $850 a month. Before that, they lived in an apartment in Oro Valley.

The couple's rented house costs $250,000, Williams said, rolling his eyes back in his head. He seemed more pleased when he saw a map of homes for sale in Marana, all listed between $68,000 and $125,000. Granted, some of the houses measured less than 1,000 sq. ft., had only one bedroom or were mobile homes.

Williams keeps a close eye on Red Rock Village, a Pulte Homes development slated just west of Interstate 10 and the Red Rock interchange. The company has planned 3,964 homes, with prices beginning in the mid-$100,000s.

"It would make sense for me to live in (Marana), but we're waiting for (Red Rock), too," Williams said. "It sounds like the only place around here that will have affordable prices."

The majority of town employees - 154 - earn between $21,000 and $40,000 a year. Another 110 earn $41,000 to $60,000. The latest numbers show the median cost of a new home in Marana at $311,195 and the median resale cost at $270,000.

In Gladden Farms, no house costs less than $200,000. In Dove Mountain, the most affordable homes begin in the high-$200,000s. Custom homes, like the $1 million-plus ones in Dove Mountain, have driven the average cost of a new home in Marana to $336,410.

Through July 31 this year, 688 new homes sold in Marana, compared with 455 resells.

To qualify for the town's employee housing program, an employee cannot earn more than $50,000 annually, unless that employee has additional family members. For instance, a family with four members cannot have an annual income more than $62,880.

Participants must make a minimum $1,000 down payment on their chosen homes and maintain a credit score of at least 600.

Participants can buy single-family homes, including attached townhomes, condominiums and manufactured houses. The program has no deadline, unless the town council decides to cut its funding.

Michael Brummett has worked in the Marana Parks and Recreation Department for eight years. He will earn about $36,000 this year as the sports, aquatics and teen coordinator.

Brummett will close on a home in Gladden Farms on Nov. 30. Thanks to the town's employee housing program, he will have $10,400 to put toward his $209,000 house.

"I can ride my bike to work" once he moves into his 1,589-square-foot home, Brummett said. "It will be about four minutes, which will save a lot on gas."

The 57-year-old has lived in Avra Valley and commuted about 20 minutes to town hall. His wife, who also worked for the town, died in August. Before Avra Valley, the couple lived in Oro Valley.

Hopeful employees have been participating in weekly workshops. Last week, they heard a presentation on budgeting, something just two admitted to trying before.

About 25 employees so far have signed up for the workshops. They work in parks and recreation, the police department, public works, planning and other departments.

"(Marana's program) could be a real catalyst to get things rolling," said Jay McCall of Madera Realty and Mortgage. "There's been talk of a program in Tucson and the county, but so far this is it."

Marana Community Development Director T. Vanhook oversees the town's program, along with Assistant Town Manager Jim DeGrood.

The town began the programming mainly to compete with other jurisdictions for parks, police and maintenance employees, who generally make less than a median salary. For "on-call" employees, a house in the town means a quicker response time, Vanhook noted.

"It all sounds very scary, and it is," Vanhook told the participants after the budget workshop. She assured them, though, that future one-on-one meetings would put them at ease and get them on track.

"It's been extremely helpful," Brummett said. "I wouldn't be able to afford my monthly payments if it weren't for this. It will help a lot of folks come into the town limits."

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