This op-ed by MPC President MarySue Barrett ran in Crain's Chicago Business on Nov. 16, 2009
Across the Chicago area, local government officials are hearing increasingly from employers that maintaining homes affordable to their workers isn't a maybe — it's a must.
One might be surprised to learn that, since 2005, leaders in Lake Forest, which ranks among Illinois' wealthiest communities, have approved innovative policies and funding to increase the city's supply of affordable homes. As part of the Charter One Workforce Housing Initiative, Lake Forest also is working with Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Northbrook to make it easier for the area's 60,000 workers earning less than $50,000 a year to afford a home nearby.
Now, Lake Forest is reviewing plans for a 17-unit apartment building to be built on land donated by the city, close to a Metra stop and shopping district. The city is providing homes at a range of prices for residents and workers, and nearby employers are cheering.
Baxter International Inc., Walgreen Co., Lake Forest College and Lake Forest Hospital, which together employ more than 11,000 workers at their north suburban campuses, have strongly backed this development. Each provided testimony to the City Council, countering fears spread by some residents. Support from officials and employers persuaded the Illinois Housing Development Authority to award tax credits to lower the development's cost.
Employers noted the detrimental effects long commutes have on absenteeism, turnover, recruitment and morale. And they applauded Lake Forest leaders for "thinking strategically about the value of providing a range of housing options near jobs and transit, and for identifying qualified developers to build and manage these properties," said Donovan Pepper, Walgreen's local government relations manager.
It's not a done deal: Lake Forest's Plan Commission will vet the proposal in December, before it goes to the city council in January.
Lake Forest is part of a burgeoning regional trend: employers putting their weight behind the creation and preservation of homes their workers can afford. More than 30 employers have tailored employer-assisted housing programs to help their workers purchase homes in mixed-income neighborhoods spurred by Chicago's Plan for Transformation.
The University of Chicago put up $1 million to preserve the affordability of rental homes in nearby neighborhoods. In the south suburbs, St. James Hospital & Health Centers, Robinson Engineering and the village of Riverdale helped secure state tax credits for a groundbreaking neighborhood redevelopment, Whistlers Crossing.
Lake Forest College has offered similar support to its workers to rent homes in the proposed development.
At a time when all employers are pinching pennies, investments in helping employees save money on housing and transportation costs will pay great dividends through the development of more livable communities across the Chicago area.