Engaging employers in local housing strategies
Cities, towns, and counties understand the value of stakeholder engagement when developing local housing strategies and other housing plans. Employers are sometimes overlooked as a key stakeholder, however, despite their substantial influence on the local economy and interest in the locality’s housing market.
Employers can help localities gain useful insights into the jurisdiction’s housing challenges and can play a role in helping to solve them. Studies have shown that employers benefit from nearby affordable and high-quality housing, as long commutes and poor quality housing can negatively affect worker productivity and turnover. Furthermore, employers have a stake in community development activities that may directly affect their workforce or make it easier or more difficult to do business in a locality. Employers can take a range of actions to help expand the availability of affordable homes, including forming coalitions to help support the development of affordable housing; supporting local planning efforts by providing input on housing needs and helping localities develop strategies to address those needs; and, in some cases, creating employer-assisted housing programs to help their employees afford housing.
This brief discusses the benefits to employers and localities in working together on a local housing strategy and suggests ways for localities to engage employers in their planning as key stakeholders. For information on employer-assisted housing programs, which are not discussed in this brief, see “Employer-assisted housing programs.”
Benefits of Engaging Employers in Planning a Local Housing Strategy
There are many benefits to localities and employers in engaging in housing planning together as there is potential for a lot of common ground between them. Before reaching out to employers, localities may want to think about why housing matters to employers and how they can engage the employers that may be most affected by a lack of affordable housing in the locality.
Why housing matters to employers
While employers may not be an obvious stakeholder for a housing strategy, the Urban Institute in their article “Four Reasons Why Employers Should Care about Housing” cites the following reasons why housing matters to employers.
- Employers in high-cost areas may struggle to attract workers. This was demonstrated in a Massachusetts Housing Partnership report which showed that a majority of employers surveyed in the Boston metro area had difficulty recruiting qualified employees due to high housing costs. Furthermore, to attract employees in high-cost areas, employers are often forced to pay higher wages to offset housing costs or suffer high rates of employee turnover.
- Employers can attract more diverse employees when there is access to quality affordable housing. When there is available and affordable housing at a range of prices, employers have access to a local workforce that may be suitable for a range of positions at different pay scales. High housing costs in the immediate area surrounding a business limit the number of workers who can afford to live nearby and, therefore, limit employers’ abilities to hire across levels from a local labor force. Low-wage workers who cannot afford to live nearby may be more likely to turn over due to long commutes or unstable housing situations.
- Workers with affordable and stable housing are more likely to be productive. In general, employers want productive workers. Long commutes lead to reduced productivity as workers tend to be more tired and have less time for activities, such as sleep and exercise, which allow employees to recharge and increase energy levels. Workers under economic stress due to high housing and other costs are at risk of housing instability. Having to move in search of more affordable housing or due to eviction proceedings is taxing and can hinder worker productivity.
- Affordable housing options can improve worker access to jobs. In places where workers are forced to move farther from job centers in search of affordable housing, access to public transit typically declines and workers must spend all or part of their commute in cars. This increases road congestion and commute times, prompting workers to look for work closer to home, where there are likely to be fewer jobs. Strategies that increase the availability of affordable housing near jobs can help to mitigate these challenges.
Mutual benefits of employers and localities working together
When localities and employers work together on a housing strategy, there can be mutual benefits.
As described above, employers have a stake in the local housing market. In addition to the cost and condition of housing, they also can be affected by housing-related community development activities that assist their workforce or make it easier or more difficult to do business in a locality. For example, if a locality invests in a neighborhood to stimulate revitalization, employers may be affected directly by construction activities, workers may have new access to housing repair programs or newly built affordable housing, or residents may be able to access job training that supports, or competes with, an employer’s industry.
Many employers recognize they are part of a larger community and work to create reputations as good citizens. They also may understand that it is in their interest to develop a good relationship with local government to demonstrate they can be a good partner both now and in the future. By engaging with the locality in developing or implementing a housing strategy, employers may be able to show they are being good corporate citizens.
Localities can benefit from engaging employers in their housing strategies in several ways. Employers can help build coalitions and generate political support for a strategy or project. Healthy local economies are often a primary concern for elected officials. By working with employers to assess and understand how the housing market and a lack of affordable housing affects businesses, localities may gain employer support for public policy measures that produce affordable, quality housing to promote a healthy local economy. For example, individual employers or employer-led coalitions could influence local decision-making by:
- Publicly supporting a housing bond issue or other measures to raise revenue for affordable housing.
- Publicly supporting changes in zoning policy to make housing less expensive to construct (such as increases in permissible density) and to ensure the inclusion of affordable housing in new development (such as through inclusionary zoning).
- Speaking at zoning or planning hearings considering whether to allow a special use permit for or otherwise authorize a particular housing development that may be facing opposition from local residents.
In addition to helping build coalitions and vocalizing support for public policy initiatives, employers may bring fresh perspectives and creative solutions for tackling housing issues. In addition to their creative energy, some employers have access to resources that many localities do not. Major employers, such as universities and hospitals, may be able to raise money or tap philanthropic funds in ways that localities cannot. Employers with deep pockets may be willing to support local housing and other community development projects directly, further building their reputations as good citizens by giving back to the community.
Identifying employers to engage
Localities looking to engage employers as contributors and partners to their housing strategies will need to determine which employers they want to participate and how intensely they want to engage them. Localities may want to reach out to all employers to invite them to provide general input to the housing strategy; however, they may want to consider a deeper level of engagement for large employers, given their greater potential to influence the local housing market. These may include both local and regional employers.
Localities may want to talk with employers who are likely to have employees experiencing any of the following issues: poor quality housing, unstable housing, high housing costs, and long commutes. To identify these employers, localities may want to consider the following questions about local and regional employers and answer them to the best of their knowledge:
- Where do their employees tend to live?
- Is it likely workers commute into or out of the locality? What might their commute experiences be like?
- Are workers likely to have affordable, quality housing?
Localities may already have a sense of where the employees of major employers tend to live and who is commuting in and out of the locality for work or they may look to data published by the U.S. Census Bureau on commuting patterns to explore these questions. Localities may also find it helpful to interview their local chambers of commerce or attend chamber meetings to ask these questions directly to members. By talking with these businesses, localities can start to uncover whether a lack of affordable, quality housing has negative impacts on them and how their businesses may be affected.
Not all employers in a locality or region will experience the same housing concerns. In areas where there is sufficient affordable housing near jobs, localities may want to talk to employers about whether or not employees have access to good quality housing and how living in poor quality housing may affect their employees’ health and productivity. In high-cost areas, localities may want to talk to employers about housing affordability and access to transit and how this may make it difficult for employers to recruit workers and how it may affect employee turnover.
Ways to engage employers
As with other stakeholders, it is important for localities to invite employers to participate early in the housing strategy development process. By inviting employers to participate in key aspects of the planning process (needs assessment and strategy development), they will be more likely to have a sense of ownership of the ultimate strategy and may become key partners in its implementation.
Localities can use many of the same techniques for engaging employers as they might use with other stakeholders. Interviews and focus group discussions are good ways to engage employers. In interviews, local staff can focus on the issues most likely to resonate with employers and can design the meeting for an in-depth discussion on employer concerns. Focus groups allow employers to hear from other stakeholders and promote the cross-fertilization of ideas across participants. In some cases, connections made through focus groups can launch new ideas and partnerships among people who do not usually connect.
Localities may also ask employers to participate on advisory boards that inform strategy development. For those employers interested in more consistent engagement than an interview or focus group would provide, this may be an attractive option.
Regardless of how a locality engages an employer, it is important for localities to understand the issues the employer may be the most concerned about and to look for ways to connect on those concerns.
Following are examples of how employers and localities are working together to address affordable housing needs.
Sonoma County, CA: In Sonoma County employers formed a coalition called the Sonoma County Employer Housing Council to drive forward the development of workforce housing in the region. The Council is comprised of 15 of the area’s major employers including hospitals, banks, engineering firms, schools, and universities. The Council works with local jurisdictions in the county to share information, remove barriers to development, and fund projects. For example, the Council is working with the Housing Trust of Silicon Valley to identify and endorse housing projects for funding.
Palm Beach County, FL: The Housing Leadership Council of Palm Beach County was formed in response to results of a commissioned Workforce Housing Needs Assessment in 2006 that determined there was an affordable housing crisis in the county. Formed initially as a volunteer group, the Council hired a CEO and established a board of directors made up of community and business leaders in 2007. Since that time the group has further assessed the need in the county (including conducting a survey of local employers), raised money for housing initiatives, created new collaborations with the Community Land Trust, created a funding source to pay for affordable housing impact fees, advocated for policy changes at the state level, publicly-supported affordable housing developments moving through municipal approval processes, and sponsored workshops on a range of topics.
Charlotte, NC: The City of Charlotte has joined forces with nonprofit and private-sector partners to invest in affordable housing in the city. Spurred by a report prepared by local advocates that identified patterns of segregation in the city, the City developed a collaborative plan to raise funds to develop new housing units. To date, for-profit financial institutions with a strong presence in Charlotte have contributed over $70 million of funding for affordable housing and economic mobility programs, leveraging $50 million the city raised through general obligation bonds. Of the $70 million in corporate funds, $50 million will be used to manage an affordable housing development loan fund, $11 million will be used to assess affordable housing projects and help feasible projects find financing, and $9.8 million will support economic mobility programs and secure land donations in the Uptown Charlotte neighborhood. Through this effort, the city and its partners aim to increase their capacity to serve households with incomes less than 60 percent of the area median income, serve residents vulnerable to displacement, and increase residents’ access to opportunity.
Silicon Valley, CA: The location of high-tech employers such as Google, Facebook and Apple in Silicon Valley has put incredible pressure on the San Francisco Bay area’s housing market, pushing up housing prices and making available rental units scarce. In response, Facebook and Google have committed to develop over 11,000 new housing units near their campuses and have committed additional funds to support affordable housing in the broader area.