King Harris is the former president and CEO of Pittway Corporation, a leading manufacturer of alarm systems. During his tenure, he began a program to help employees purchase homes near Pittway’s System Sensor factory in St. Charles. He is currently a vice-chair of Metropolis 2020 and leads the non-profit organization’s housing program, an initiative designed to help improve the availability of affordable housing in Chicago and surrounding areas. In this interview, he discusses the lack of affordable housing in job-rich areas, the ever-increasing commute times facing Chicago-area workers and what employers can do to help.

Could you talk a little about how the availability and location of affordable housing is affecting workers and employers in Chicago?
Well, I think it’s a given to the extent we call it workforce housing, not affordable housing. As a matter of fact, the term [Metropolis 2020] used in the monograph we published in 2002 is attainable workforce housing – housing that is affordable to the average working person. There is a serious lack of this housing in the job-rich suburban areas of Chicago which is the northwest corridor, the far western area around Aurora and Elgin, the northern suburbs, most of Lake County, McHenry County, good bits of Kane County, certainly DuPage County, there is a shortage of this housing. And as a result of this, we have employees faced with longer and longer commutes to get to work.

Have you heard of any other innovative programs in the private sector?
Employer-assisted housing is perhaps the most notable. Let’s take employer-assisted housing. For example, System Sensor offers employees up to $5,000 in a forgivable five-year loan, so the way to think of it is they’re willing to invest $1,000 more per worker involved in the program per year. The cost of replacing a worker is many, many times that and by reducing turnover, an employer can actually save money. I think you get better morale, better productivity, a more stable workforce, so, in actuality, employers come out ahead here.

More importantly, it really improves employees’ standard of living. There are a lot of employers around the area who run van pools from train stations or bus stops to their factories. While that does serve a purpose, if you talk to the employees involved and ask them how long their commute is, I think you’d find that a lot of them have very, very long commutes each way, which certainly affects their family lives. They’d be much better off if they lived near where they worked.

Are there any resources either from the private sector or the government available to small businesses who wish to assist their employees with housing and/or transportation issues?
Let’s start with housing which I know most about. Most of the counties and many cities have what they call first-time homeowners assistance programs, which are a form of employer assisted housing except the money is being put up by the Federal government via community development block grant (CDBG) money. The problem with these programs is that they’re very popular and they’re underfunded, which limits the amount of people they can serve. Via that funding stream, the six counties in the Chicago metropolitan area in the city of Chicago and a number of cities that get direct CDBG money, have what they call first-time homeowners assistance programs. These typically provide forgivable loans that range anywhere from $3,000 to, in some cases, as much as $15,000.

One of the ideas that we’ve been proposing at Metropolis 2020 is to integrate those programs with employer-assisted housing programs. So instead of an employer putting up $5,000, the employer might put up $2,500 and the state would put up $2,500. The employer and the state could, therefore, involve more workers in their respective programs by working together.

What are the costs of not addressing these housing and transportation issues?
The majority of families today are either dual income households or they’re headed by a single parent. These people are spending too much time commuting back and forth to work. That’s less time with their families, less time with their children and more stress. Children lose, families lose, and again, it does not have to be this way.

On a similar note, do housing and transportation issues impact the rate of joblessness?
Of course they do, to the extent that people who are looking for jobs have reasonable access to jobs; they’re going to take them. But if you live in the southern suburbs of Chicago or the south side of Chicago or the near west side, the idea that you’d be able to take a job in Elgin or Aurora or Arlington Heights, it’s just not feasible without accepting a ridiculous commute.

How about crime rates?
I think there have been lots of studies that show, certainly the United States proved it in the 90s, high employment leads to a lower crime rate. That’s a given.