While there is no shortage of jobs in the northwest suburbs, the real-estate boom of the past decade has made it tough for many of the low- and middle-income people who hold those jobs to live within a reasonable commute of their place of employment. According to the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), workers who earn less than $50,000 annually make up 70 percent of the work force in five northwest suburbs. Unfortunately, only 40 percent of the housing stock in those communities lies within the price range of those employees.

On May 18th, the mayors of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Mount Prospect, Palatine, and Rolling Meadows addressed this problem at a breakfast at Arlington Park, where they discussed the benefits of employer-assisted housing (EAH) with about two dozen local employers. (The breakfast was co-hosted by Charter One Bank, which has a sizable work-force housing program of its own.) “You can’t separate out jobs, housing, and traffic congestion,” said Arlene Mulder, the mayor of Arlington Heights. “They all go together.”

Most often, a company’s EAH fund helps employees with the down payment on a home in the form of a forgivable loan (under the condition that the employee stays with the company for five years). Since 2000, 60 employers in Illinois have helped more than 1,000 employees buy homes, according to the MPC. The employer gets a state tax write-off on half of the amount it puts into an EAH; based on the experience of companies that have participated in the program, the savings realized by the company in the diminished cost of employee turnover often makes up the difference.

MarySue Barrett, MPC’s president, explained that the plans have worked well for “place-based” institutions such as the Chicago Public Schools, the city of Evanston, and the University of Chicago. It’s an innovative solution to the increasing problem of jobs landing in one part of the region and affordable housing in another. Illinois has been a national leader in EAH plans, thanks in large part to the MPC’s efforts. As Mayor Mulder told the assembled employers: “You will benefit within your heart and soul if you can find a way to help. The payback will come.”

For more information about EAH, go to www.reachillinois.org (REACH Illinois-Regional Employer-Assisted Collaboration for Housing-is a partnership between the MPC, Housing Action Illinois, and other groups).