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West suburban employers, municipal staff gather to talk workforce housing

Michael Prischman

From left; Marz Timms of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calerone, MPC President MarySue Barrett, Scott C. Swanson, President of Charter One Illinois, and Oak Park President David Pope

Mayor Anthony Calderone welcomed a crowd that tipped 60 to Forest Park’s Village Hall on July 13, setting the tone for a productive discussion by emphasizing recent collaboration between west suburban towns around housing issues. Representatives from west suburban communities, more than 20 local employers, and local and regional civic groups gathered that afternoon for the Charter One Workforce Housing Initiative convening to discuss opportunities for local employers to contribute to stable homeownership and redevelopment in the western suburbs.

Employers and municipal representatives on Tuesday at Forest Park Village Hall

Michael Prischman Photography

The towns of Bellwood, Berwyn, Broadview, Forest Park, Maywood and Oak Park have been participating together in the West Cook County Housing Collaborative since 2009. The collaborative is a cooperative effort among the six municipalities to target nearly $7 million in foreclosure recovery funding provided through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP). West Cook County suburbs experienced more foreclosure filings in 2008 and 2009 than most other sub-regions in the six-county metropolitan Chicago area; in fact, only the south suburbs and the City of Chicago experienced a higher rate of filings.

The West Cook collaborative had great news to share about upcoming housing opportunities for local families, including a planned rehabilitated rental building in Maywood and single-family homes for sale in Berwyn. As a result of the NSP funding and dedicated work of the participating municipalities, those looking for a home to rent or buy in the western suburbs will have new options in the coming months.

Tammie Grossman, Oak Park Housing Programs Manager, spoke on behalf of the housing collaborative

Michael Prischman Photography

The collaborative asked local employers who attended to refer their employees to these new available homes, and also encouraged the companies and institutions present to consider offering an employer-assisted housing (EAH) program as part of their employee benefits package. By helping their workers afford homes near work and/or near transit, employers not only can win the loyalty of their workers and improve company morale, but also support local housing market recovery and economic development in the west suburbs. In addition, by partnering with local housing expert Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC), these employers can help prepare their employees to be stable homeowners in the communities they serve.

Charter One, the luncheon’s sponsor, spoke about their unique commitment to employees through their own employer-assisted housing program and challenged other employers present to start programs. “Charter One knows how valuable homeownership is to families and communities, and we are proud to support this important initiative in conjunction with our own homeownership program that has provided assistance to Chicago-area employees since 2004,” said Scott C. Swanson, president, Charter One, Illinois. Swanson added that Charter One’s EAH program has helped 196 employees across the region purchase homes, including three in the western suburbs.

Michelle Smolinski of Charter One

Michael Prischman Photography

Bringing the concept of EAH alive for the audience, Michelle Smolinski, a Charter One employee, spoke about her personal experience of moving closer to work with the help of her employer.  By taking advantage of Charter One’s homebuyer assistance program, Michelle was able to cover her closing costs, thus allowing her to maximize her downpayment while maintaining flexibility in her savings. Plus, she described how moving closer to work has made a lasting impact that goes beyond financial measures—such as the quality of life improvements experienced by being closer to her son’s school during the day and enjoying a dramatically decreased commute.  “Knowing the investment and commitment that my employer made in me, has, in-turn, strengthened the commitment I have for my employer,” said Michelle.

Marz Timms, director of homeownership programs at the OPRHC, gave details of the center’s services, which include rental, pre-purchase, post-purchase and money management counseling and education. With decades of experience serving the housing needs of English and Spanish-speaking customers in the western suburbs, the center is well poised to administer EAH benefits for local employers. The majority of employers participating in EAH outsource the program to nonprofit housing agencies. The financial benefits of outsourcing? A tax credit for employers! Marz explained that a state tax credit is available for participating employers which gives a 50 cent return on every dollar spent in administration and down payment help to staff.  

Applauding the municipal leadership and spirit of collaboration across village boundaries, Metropolitan Planning Council President MarySue Barrett said, “Now is the time, as we can see some positive signs of recovery, to expand on the good work already happening in the west suburbs.” As she thanked the employers for coming, she asked them to consider taking her “one-plus-one” challenge: to think of one partnership they could develop that would make a difference. “Half the battle is getting the right people together to work on solutions,” she said.

President David Pope of Oak Park closed the program by stressing how important collaboration has been to tap into NSP and other new federal incentives available to support sustainable community development that connects jobs, homes and transportation.

Perhaps no opportunity is greater than the proposed Livable Communities Act (S 1619 and HR 4690), which would foster equitable and sustainable development by eliminating federal barriers to sustainable community development, and by authorizing $4 billion over four years for regional planning and challenge grants to help local and regional communities coordinate land use, housing, transportation, and infrastructure planning—the very topics addressed at the Charter One Workforce Housing convening on July 13. 

Public-private partnerships are so key to this work, and MPC is among a group of regional and national advocates urging lawmakers to include incentives in the bill for employers who offer EAH programs. Please contact your Congressional delegation and urge their support for the Livable Communities Act, as well as added incentives for employer engagement.

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