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St. Regis helps worker pay rent


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St. Regis helps worker pay rent


When Sharyn Soderlund needed help paying her rent, she took advantage of a unique benefit offered by her employer.

By ANDREW GALVIN The Orange County Register DANA POINT ? The prospect of being homeless filled Sharyn Soderlund with fear.


Soderlund, who earns about $14 an hour at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, found her housing situation threatened when her husband, a handyman, came down with an illness that left him unable to work.


"My husband was the main breadwinner for the family," she said. "My income was basically supplemental, and I brought in the insurance."


That changed when Lance Soderlund, 61, came down with Cushing's Syndrome, a disorder caused by high levels of the hormone cortisol that can have ruinous effects on the body. He became disabled last fall.


Suddenly, Sharyn, 47, faced having to carry the couple financially. The income from her job as a guest relations ambassador wasn't enough to cover their monthly expenses of roughly $4,000, including $2,000 to rent the Dana Point house where the couple has lived for 14 years.


Friends and family helped out, but by spring she was facing a crisis.


"I was majorly panicked," she said. "It was quite devastating to me, actually ? knowing I might not have a home to go to in a month or two."


Out of desperation, she decided to look into a unique benefit offered by the St. Regis to help struggling employees pay their rent.


The St. Regis views the benefit as a way to help "attract and retain a qualified work force" in south Orange County, where the cost of living can make it difficult for lower-income workers to make ends meet, said Kevin Beutler, the resort's director of human resources.


At any one time, as many as 100 of the St. Regis' almost 1,000 employees can participate in the rental-assistance program, which pays from $50 to $390 per month to those who qualify. The program is funded by the resort but administered by an outside non-profit, Mary Erickson Community Housing in San Clemente.


Mary Erickson qualifies applicants for the St. Regis benefit according to a formula based on income limits and fair-market rents set by the Orange County Housing Authority, said Jacquie McCord, director of programs at Mary Erickson. By using a third party, the St. Regis avoids any appearance of favoritism in deciding which employees get the benefit.


The St. Regis, like other hospitality companies, looks for ways to mitigate a "constant turnover of employees," Beutler said, and has found that participants in the rent subsidy benefit, which the resort has offered since it opened in 2001, are half as likely to leave as other employees.


Still, when Soderlund first glanced at Mary Erickson's Web site, her hopes sank. She saw images of Latino families in apartment settings, and figured the program couldn't possibly be for someone like herself: a white resident of a single-family house in Dana Point.


A phone call to McCord helped to dispel her doubts. "Her gracious spirit made me feel comfortable right away," Soderlund said.


Soderlund faxed in her application and found that she qualified for assistance. Though her life is still a struggle, she and her husband have managed to stay in their house.


While other Orange County employers, including UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, have programs that help employees buy homes, and UCI offers some rental housing to employees at about 10 percent below market rates, the St. Regis appears to be the only local employer that offers a cash rent subsidy.


The program enables the St. Regis to address high housing costs while still paying market-based wages. Also, by limiting the number of employees who can participate, the St. Regis is able to predict and manage the cost of the program, McCord said.


After nearly three years at the St. Regis, Soderlund is a very loyal employee.


"I might not look like the typical person who would apply for aid, but life happens to all of us, and to know that they were willing to help me in my time of need was awesome," she said. "I think there's a stronger dedication and devotion to the company because of the bond, the strong emotional connection."


There's a lesson for other employers who are pondering how to attract the best workers in a county where housing costs are high.


"Responsible businesses recognize that their employees are their most valuable assets," said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, in an e-mail. "OCBC applauds St. Regis' creativity to help their employees with immediate housing issues. But OCBC asserts that in the long run, housing affordability begins with increased availability."


Contact the writer: 714-796-6045 or agalvin@ocregister.com

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