Housing for a Competitive Workforce: Redefining Supply, Demand and "Affordability"
Employer-Assisted Housing: What is it?
"In introducing this concept of Employer-Assisted Housing (EAH) to people, it always takes me a few minutes to convey that, no, this is not about creating company towns a la Pullman," Donna Thomas laughed. "It is about new and savvy tools that employers can use to support and stabilize their workforce attract new employees, and reduce traffic congestion in their communities."
Thomas, executive director of the Rolling Meadows-based nonprofit housing organization, North West Housing Partnership (NWHP), has been working to introduce the notion of EAH since job growth in the northwest suburban corridor began booming in the mid 80s, but many new workers did not earn enough to buy homes in those communities. At first, her ideas about the need for corporate involvement were ignored … but that has changed.
Mary White Vasys, Bank of America national market executive and MPC housing committee co-chair, believes traffic gridlock is the reason. "People are painfully aware of the time they spend living bumper-to-bumper. The more traffic woes interfere with leisure and family time, the greater the interest in living closer to work," said Vasys. "MPC's regional housing working group certainly did not invent EAH, but we did publish a summary of the best practices (Housing for Competitive Workforce: Homeownership Models that Work by Michael Schubert)." Vasys emphasized that employers who participate in EAH understand two things: their own self interest, similar to their commitment to employee healthcare or childcare issues; and a need for a community-based housing partner with expertise and roots in the local housing market.
Mindful of these two guiding principles, MPC began working with several non-profit partners---NWHP, Aurora-based Joseph Corporation, Winnetka-based Interfaith Housing Development Corporation and Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) of Elgin---to develop a range of homeownership assistance strategies for nearby employers including down payment assistance and counseling services. In less than a year, these partnerships have paid dividends. In September, the first two companies, Pitway Corporation’s System Sensor plant in St. Charles and Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, launched EAH programs. To determine employee interest, the companies conducted housing needs surveys and homeownership fairs. The, by working with NWHP, Joseph Corporation and MPC to establish the necessary protocols, their programs are now operational. With several other EAH programs in development, the momentum is growing.
Bank One’s Caroline Goldstein, a funder of NWHP as well as NHS of Elgin, concurred. "Now that the hospital's EAH program is underway, the idea is much less abstract," Goldstein. "When we sat down to introduce the concept to Marion Durke, the human resource director of our Elgin-based First USA credit card plant, she was eager to proceed. We are benefiting from lessons MPC has learned from its partnerships."
Maryann Shanley, of the non-profit Joseph Corporation (JoCo), elaborated. "When MPC and the CEO of Pittway Corporation, King Harris (see "Regional Perspective" on page 6) first invited us to sit down with the management team and union leaders at Pittway's System Sensor plant in St Charles, talking to them about housing solutions sounded like a stretch. But, I began hearing more frequently from our local chamber members that they want to learn how a good housing program can help them meet their number one challenge: maintaining a stable workforce."
"It all begins with the employer's understanding of the costs," pointed out Liz Ryan, senior affordable housing business manager of Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest source of home mortgage funds and perhaps the nations largest provider of EAH. "Turnover, absenteeism, and tardiness are understandably high among employees commuting from places where housing costs are within their price range. When companies connect this to how much they spend recruiting, retaining and retraining their employees, they see the value of an EAH investment." To demonstrate their commitment to this concept, Fannie Mae has agreed to work with prospective employee partners to walk through the economic benefits and costs of an EAH program and provide a baseline for EAH program evaluation over time.
Once companies understood their own self-interest in this project, the next step was to get support. "The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between System Sensor, JoCo and MPC is the foundation of this project," described Dick Braun human resources director for System Sensor. "It clarifies the way we will determine people’s eligibility for down payment assistance, what education and counseling services JoCo will provide to our workers, and the tools MPC will help us develop."
"The MOU also sets some reasonable boundaries," added Mark Lusson, Northwest Community Healthcare’s human resource director. "The confidentiality of employees is vigilantly respected. Once we determine an employee is eligible, it is the nonprofit partner who digs deeper into employees’ credit history and introduces them to the realtors and lenders."
Michael Rose, acting director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) said his agency strongly supports these partnerships. "MPC's Employer-Assisted Housing initiative engages the right players in high job growth corridors, where the economy is booming and the housing market is tightening. Strong financial partners are needed to more than match this private sector commitment to the work force. IHDA, city and county programs, the banks and Fannie Mae all need to be working with the nonprofit partners and others in the field to develop a sound financial package for employees."
"One of the reasons EAH is so compelling," offered Greg Paulus, president of Alechri Properties Inc. and chair of MPC’s regional housing working group, "is because it offers housing resources to people who deserve it, while educating private and public sector partners about why housing should be a central component of all economic development strategies."
Indeed, at a recent gathering sponsored by the Chicago Rehab Network and the Chicago Department of Housing, EAH was identified as one of the five top initiatives likely to increase opportunities in the housing market for working families. As a result, MPC will be co-chairing a four-month task force with Shorebank Advisory Services (SAS), looking at tools and incentives to more broadly support EAH programs and opportunities.
For further information on the Employer-Assisted Housing Task Force, call MPC Housing Director Robin Snyderman at 312/922-5616 or SAS President Helen Dunlap at 773/753-5647.