Get Big Employers (and Big Brother) Working for You

NAR's recent Workforce Housing Forum contained many real-world tips and ideas for entering this exciting, much-needed niche.

October 17, 2012

At the National Association of REALTORS® Workforce Housing Forum in Chicago last week, policymakers, association executives, and real estate professionals were eager to share the success stories and ongoing challenges of getting working-class Americans into housing that they can afford.

But the event wasn’t held solely in support of potential home buyers. Here are some techniques gathered from forum events on how workforce housing can both give you an edge in your market and make your community a more vibrant place to live and work.

Target the Industry That Defines Your Market

After Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of REALTORS® saw how vital the role first responders would play in the city’s recovery.  But the association also realized how difficult it would be for this group to stay in the city that needed them.

“First responders had to leave because a lot of them weren't home owners,” Letitia Clark George, a representative of the association, said at one of the forum’s breakout sessions. “We knew that those people were needed and that they were valued... We needed to have [them] invested and able to come back.”

The association responded by lobbying a strapped local government to reinstate a soft second funding program to help city employees buy homes. They also secured grant money to help provide $10,000 in closing cost assistance for first responders.

Reach Out to Influential Employers

Do big companies headquartered in your market know about your new development? They should.

“Employers are a credible source of information,” said Samantha DeKoven of the Metropolitan Planning Council, noting that her organization has historically helped drive their employees to available housing stock.

But why would employers want to spread the news about your properties? The forum’s keynote speaker, Amy Rislov, senior vice president of human resources at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, was beaming while she shared the results of Aurora's award-winning employer-assisted housing program with forum attendees.

“Our program is a great point of pride for us,” she said, noting that turnover rates and performance problems are significantly lower for employees participating in Aurora’s housing program. “We need top performers, and to me, this is a massive value.”

Build Partnerships with Local Government

Though many of the projects featured at this year’s forum blossomed thanks to Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grants and other federal funding initiatives, talk of tighter budgets to come doesn’t bode well for their continuation. Forum speakers urged attendees to explain the benefits of reinvesting in housing to local governments. 

“We have to constantly push elected officials to remember housing,” said George. “They forget that rebuilding these communities helps with education. It helps with crime.”

“It's not a housing solution that's going to stabilize neighborhoods and communities alone,” said the National Community Stabilization Trust’s Dawn Stockmo, as she cautioned against presenting housing as a silver bullet. She suggested focusing on the “civic engagement” spawned by home ownership. “This is an issue that collectively we’re going to have to figure out with or without federal funds,” she said. “Figure out how to use NSP as a spark to get other activity going.”

Rethink Your Marketing

Getting the word out about a project as big as LiveEvanston, an affordable housing program in Evanston, Ill., took more marketing than Brinshore Development’s David Brint was used to.

“A lot more. I mean, everything about this project is a lot more,” he told forum attendees. The non-profit trust of several organizations worked together to get the word out via billboards, a new Web site, and outreach. “It drove people into our system... We've had to let people know this was happening.” Now the properties have hundreds of names waitlisted to join in.

Other times it’s a negative impression, rather than lack of awareness, that marketing can help combat.

George said there are certain parts of New Orleans where neighborhood associations have had to “rename neighborhoods because there's such a stigma.” On the flip side, DeKoven noted that some areas are perceived as having only high-end housing, so when affordable homes open up, many say, “What's the point? No one can afford it.”

Explain Benefits to the Whole Community

New developments can run into resistance from long-time residents. One forum attendee asked a panel of industry experts what should be done when a community adopts a “Not In My BackYard” (NIMBY) stance against multifamily development.

“We can change minds about the NIMBY issue by showing them other developments,” replied Kim Herman, executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission. He said that communities which have already seen such developments are often quick to welcome more.

In his response to the question, Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional Administrator Antonio Riley offered a hand from the federal government. “We have the ability to withhold federal funding from those communities that have done an about-face” on their affordable housing commitments, Riley said. “Part of it really starts with us saying, ‘You can't do that any more.’ Do that in the field, and we will back you in Washington.”

Real estate professionals can also turn to employers to spread the good word. “The community impact is also critically important,” Rislov said. Though she noted there are many intangible benefits—volunteerism, decreased emissions, increased investment in schools—she estimated that her program’s investment “has resulted in a community impact of $46.3 million.”

Leverage Your Association

In its successful lobbying effort to get their city to reopen its soft second funding program, New Orleans REALTORS® turned to the national association.

“We decided to use one of NAR’s polling programs” to help identify where the shuttered program fell short, said George. She said they came back to the city with the data and said, “We did our homework; this is what we think is going wrong. Let’s work together to make this right.”

There are many creative ways to use NAR’s tools to solve the workforce housing puzzle. One starting place is holding a workforce housing forum in your own backyard. Check out NAR’s guide to funding, organizing, and conducting your own Workforce Housing Forum to learn more.

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.