Local mayors join forces to meet their shared housing needs
Barbara Morris, vice president of Human Resources at Baxter Healthcare Corporation, in Deerfield, Ill., stood up in front of her peers from several other north suburban employers, and asked her hosts — the mayors of Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood, Lake Forest, and Northbrook — “Aren’t we really here to figure out how employers can support what you’re doing together to increase the number of homes affordable to our employees and their families?”
This was music to the ears of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Housing Opportunity Development Corporation (HODC), and Charter One Bank, who had orchestrated the June 2007 convening to introduce the Charter One Workforce Housing Initiative, which promotes interjurisdictional coordination and leverages private sector investment through employer-assisted housing (EAH).
“It’s a difficult reality today,” explained Charter One Bank Senior Vice President Allen Rodriguez. “The business community understands many valuable employees live too far away. As a result, they arrive to work too stressed and tired from spending 90 minutes in traffic — and then leave those jobs after two years of training. This is an expensive challenge. For employers, local housing solutions don’t stop at municipal boundaries,” Mr. Rodriguez added, “it’s simply about access to the job.”
Unfortunately for many local workers, access is challenging. In the five towns above, there are 60,000 workers earning less than $50,000 per year, and fewer than 5,000 housing options they can afford. To meet the projected local demand, the communities would need to develop 650 homes (for rent or sale) every year for the next 20 to 25 years.
One month earlier, the mayors of northwest suburban Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect, Palatine, andRolling Meadows hosted a similar gathering with their local employers, also as part of the Charter One Workforce Housing Initiative. In those towns, the numbers are somewhat less daunting, but still illustrate the notorious “job-housing mismatch” that plagues the Chicago region. They have nearly 47,000 workers earning less than $25,000 per year, and only 7,300 housing options affordable to them; these towns would need nearly 400 new housing options per year for the next 20 to 25 years.
As Mayor Ken Nelson of Rolling Meadows described, “We’ve been looking hard at how to keep building up the economy of our town without losing the working-class people that Rolling Meadows was established to serve. We are working to ensure the right mix of housing options for entry level workers and CEOs alike. It’s not an easy balance to strike.”
Highwood Mayor Vince Donofrio expressed similar sentiments. In addition to the political leadership necessary from the City Council, implementing good housing policies and programs require both community support and sophisticated staff — or resources for qualified consultants, which many towns cannot afford. Highwood, for example, has significant rehab needs and redevelopment opportunities, but is among the many towns in the region with no planning, housing, or economic development staff.
Meanwhile, the towns bordering Highwood are two of the luminaries in Illinois’ housing policy arena, Highland Park and Lake Forest . Both were recently featured in the international news magazine The Economist for their sophisticated zoning strategies, trust funds, and other effective measures to preserve and increase the housing affordable to their local workers. They also have several planners on staff to advance their goals.
Mayor Mike Belsky of Highland Park is among those spearheading the partnership among mayors. “Coordination requires time to cultivate and a high level of trust,” he said. “Starting with employer outreach around employer-assisted housing seemed like a logical first step.”
Charter One Bank President and CEO Scott C. Swanson applauded “the spirit of collaboration of these mayors, as well as the promise of innovation this whole effort can realize, thanks to the participation of business leaders. “As an employer,” Mr. Swanson said, “the bank made the bottomline decision to invest in housing for its own workforce.” He credited the bank’s EAH program with giving “us an edge in attracting and retaining talented people.” Over 140 Charter One employees have benefited from the bank’s program, which enables them to purchase homes throughout metropolitan Chicago.
Charter One Bank is among the nearly 70 Illinois employers investing in housing solutions for local workers through EAH, exclusively administered by MPC in metropolitan Chicago and Housing Illinois downstate. Having experienced the value of EAH firsthand, Charter One decided to partner with mayors, MPC and HODC (see regional interview, pg. 4) to give more employers the opportunity to “taste the success” of EAH and other workforce housing strategies.
Former MPC Board Member Henry Webber, who helped get the University of Chicago/University of Chicago Hospitals EAH program off the ground, was a frequent spokesman on the benefits of EAH. The university, which has helped more than 150 staff people purchase homes closer to work since 2003, also has stepped up its commitment to rental housing preservation through a major investment in the nonprofit Community Investment Corporation. At the Charter One Workforce Housing Initiative events, Mr. Webber delivered a simple message to employers. “Employer-assisted housing works. The local model has been tested and is easy to implement.”
U of C’s program was largely inspired by one of its trustees, King Harris, who pioneered EAH in Illinois . Formerly the CEO of Pittway Corporation, Mr. Harris worked with MPC in 2000 to pilot the EAH model — which pairs each employer with a nonprofit housing counseling agency — that is now known as REACH Illinois . He has since become a formidable advocate. Now vice chair of MPC’s Board of Governors and a senior advisor with Chicago Metropolis 2020, Mr. Harris is one of dozens of EAH employers who are active supporters of new and innovative workforce housing policy. For mayors, this kind of private sector leadership may be as valuable as the monetary investments. The housing and credit markets have turned upside down since these first workforce housing forums took place, and the demand for innovative public-private partnerships is greater than ever.
Coordination requires time to cultivate and a high level of trust. Starting with employer outreach around employer assisted housing seemed like a logical first step (with discussions about joint trust funds, joint land trusts and other programs now “on the drawing board.”)
In his closing remarks at the June forum, Lake Forest Mayor Mike Rummel said, “Working together, we will be able to increase the housing options available to our local workers. Your voice is essential. We have so many policy and development proposals that will need our attention in the years ahead, and your support will go a long way in helping us to move forward the right issue at the right time.”
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