With the price at the pump topping record levels, many advocacy groups
have published their own version of “10 Tips for Reducing Your Energy
Consumption.” While individual efforts – as well as critical thinking in the
ongoing alternative fuels debate – are integral, communities also must start
planning carefully to achieve the only sure-fire method for curbing America’s
oil addiction: cutting car trips. Imagine the possibilities if we stopped
subsidizing unnaturally low gas prices, and started letting the market catch up
to rising consumer demand for pedestrian and bike-friendly communities near
jobs, retail and public transportation. This is Part 5 in an ongoing
Metropolitan Planning Council Web series, highlighting how we, as a region, can
start recognizing every chance to grow or rebuild as another opportunity to
diminish our auto dependency. Check back every other Thursday to learn
innovative ways we can beat our oil addiction through sensible growth.
Most of us assume that at some point we’ll be homeowners. After all, that’s
the American dream, right? House, garage, backyard. In fact, close to 70 percent
of Americans do own their own homes, according to the National Housing
Conference’s 2003 study, Locked Out. Yet, while the overall U.S. homeownership
rate has continued to rise, the rate of homeownership for working families with
children actually has fallen to 59.6 percent, 3 percentage points lower than it
was prior to 1980, and 8.7 percentage points below the 2003 national
Part of the problem is the lack of affordable homes for sale in job-rich
areas. Often, in order to afford to own a home near work, families must double
up or move to communities where the land is cheap, but the jobs are scarce.
Because of this jobs-housing mismatch, workers are enduring “marathon” commutes.
While some of us are fortunate enough to live near commuter rail lines, many
face countless hours stuck in traffic, wasting time that could be better spent
with our families or in our communities, spending far too money much on gas, and
contributing to air pollution. The burden on individuals is heavy; as a region,
the costs are staggering: every year, the Chicago metropolitan area fritters
away some 365 million gallons of fuel, $4.2 billion in financial losses, and 237
Tori Williams, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher and mother of
10-year-old Darius McCaskill, knows firsthand the difficult choices many workers
face about where they can afford to live. Williams, who teaches kindergarten at
Claremont Academy on the city’s South Side, has been a CPS teacher for seven
years. Despite her professional job, Williams was unable to buy a home until May
2006. Exasperated with renting, she and her son moved in with her parents to
save money for a downpayment. Then she found out about CPS’ employer-assisted
housing (EAH) program.
CPS is among dozens of companies in the Chicago region and around the country
stepping up to help their workers buy homes close to work. Through
employer-assisted housing programs, employers provide workers with downpayment
or rental assistance and connections to credit and homebuyer counseling from a
nonprofit housing organization. If the employee stays with the company for the
agreed-upon length of time, usually five years, the loan is completely
“It’s worked out great,” explains Ms. Williams, who received $3,000 in
downpayment assistance from CPS, which leveraged an additional $3,000 from the
Illinois Housing Development Authority and $3,000 from LaSalle Bank. “It brought
down the final purchase price. I’ve been telling everybody!”
More than 600 employees have benefited from their employer’s assistance to
buy homes closer to work through the Metropolitan Planning Council’s EAH
initiative. Starting with one company in 2000, the program has grown to include
more than 60 participants throughout northeastern Illinois, including
McHenry County-based Medela Corporation, Allstate Insurance, City of St.
Charles, Village of Riverdale, Charter One Bank, and Chicago Public Schools. In
2005 alone, regional employers invested more than $1.3 million to help their
workers purchase homes.
These programs are fully customized and easy to administer. REACH Illinois
partners, the local nonprofit housing experts, provide credit counseling and
homebuyer education to employees and fully manage the program, relieving
companies’ staffs of administrative hassles.
Employers like the program because it’s a way to differentiate their
companies in the marketplace. Some companies use the benefit to attract new
employees; others focus on it as a retention tool. In other communities, it’s
viewed as a redevelopment tool, a way to invest in and improve the area.
"It's a commitment from us to the employee, and from the employee back to
us," says Chris King, president of South Holland, Ill.-based Robinson
Engineering. "I don't know that there are any pitfalls. It's win-win. It helps
the towns see that we have a vested interest in their community, and our people
are involved there."
The State of Illinois offers incentives that make EAH programs even more
compelling. As part of the Illinois Affordable Housing Tax Credit program,
employers can earn state income tax credits worth 50 cents for each dollar in
benefits given. In addition, the state will match dollar-for-dollar any EAH
assistance provided to eligible employees in northeastern Illinois — up to
$5,000 based on household income. Finally, many employers who create EAH
programs will qualify for federal tax deductions, because any investment in the
program can be written off as donations through one of the many nonprofit REACH
The federal government also has seen the opportunity to encourage
employer-assisted housing. Inspired in great part by lessons learned in
Illinois, the Housing America's Workforce Act (HR
3194 and S1330) – introduced in the Senate by Sen. Hillary Rodham
Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) – has
garnered bipartisan support as a constructive response to the decrease in
homeownership rates among moderate-income working families.
"Employer-assisted housing programs support working families, while also
reducing turnover costs for employers,” said Sen. Clinton. “Our proposal will
expand EAH by offering tax credits to participating employers, excluding as
taxable income the assistance received by employees, and supporting start-up
counseling work essential to the success of the program. This is clearly a
public-private partnership that is proven and makes sense."
To support private sector investment in housing solutions, the Housing
America's Workforce Act offers a tax credit of 50 cents for every dollar that an
employer provides to eligible employees. In addition, to ensure that employees
receive the full value of employers' contributions, the act defines housing
assistance as a nontaxable benefit, similar to health, dental and life
insurance. Finally, the act establishes a competitive grant program available to
nonprofit housing organizations that provide initial technical assistance,
program administration, and outreach support to employers undertaking EAH
"For fairly nominal costs," says Bennett Rosenthal, of Lake County,
Ill.-based Rosenthal Brothers, "the program helps retain loyal and dedicated
To build on Illinois’ successes and support the federal proposal, the
Metropolitan Planning Council is now offering technical assistance. We can help
you design and implement an employer-assisted housing program in the Chicago
region or around the country. Housing Action Illinois can help with employers
located in Illinois outside the Chicago region. For more information, visit the
REACH Illinois Web
Read Part One of the series.
Read Part Two of the series.
Read Part Three of the series.
Read Part Four of the series.