Keith McKee, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), conservatively spent an hour each way commuting from his home in southwest suburban Chicago to campus located on the near southwest side of the city.

“If I did it at midnight, it was about a half hour each way. If I did it when there was any traffic, it was more like 50 minutes to an hour. And on a bad day, it was an hour and a half,” he says, adding with a laugh, “The Dan Ryan (expressway) was one of my favorite parking lots.”

For this professor, the idea of walking to work seemed unlikely — until IIT offered a forgivable loan of $5,000 to any member of the faculty or staff who would buy and live in a new community that was being built on vacant land next to campus. McKee jumped at the chance to cut his commute and reclaim those wasted hours.

“What I do is do a lot more reading and a lot more work,” he explains. “I have a little office in my house so I’m able to work and then come home and work. What a nice thing.”

But McKee likes being just a stoplight from the office. His one-bedroom apartment overlooks the IIT baseball field with the entire Chicago skyline as a backdrop. He says he likes to eat out and takes advantage “of the 500 or so restaurants within a 15 minute drive” from his apartment.

As housing prices have soared nationwide, the number of companies giving cash to their employees to help with a down payment has surged. But a relatively new program in Illinois has helped local companies do even more for their workers.

Last year, new tax incentives kicked in for businesses that offer employee assisted housing programs, including a matching fund and tax credit program.

The tax credit gives employers a 50 percent credit for the cash they put into the program. For tax-free entities, like IIT, the credit can be sold to other for-profit companies with income tax liabilities. The matching fund doubles what an employer puts in for income-eligible households.

“Income eligible” refers to “a family of four people earning about $56,000 per year, which is 80 percent of the area median income,” notes Robin Snyderman, housing director for the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago (

“So if an employer puts in $5,000 to help that family live closer to work, the state can match that up to $5,000 for people earning less than 50 percent of area median income, or up to $3,000 for people earning less than 80 percent of area median income,” she adds.

For a family earning $56,000, getting even $8,000 toward a down payment can make the difference between owning a home close to work and renting far away. In some of the collar counties surrounding Chicago, housing counseling agencies and non-profits have been able to cobble together an even better deal. In Lake County, income-eligible families might receive as much as $15,000, including $5,000 from the employer, $5,000 from the state and another $5,000 from county agencies.

“There are many areas of Lake County that wouldn’t be affordable to their work force without those incentives,” Snyderman says.

What is so interesting about this program is that it serves several purposes: decaying parts of the city or county are being cleaned up, and people who work there are able to buy something nice in which to live. From the employer’s point of view, helping employees buy homes closer to work is a terrific employment benefit.

“It’s helping attract people, both faculty and staff, to this location,” explains David Baker, vice president of external affairs for IIT. “Employer assisted housing programs, particularly the generous one we’re proposing, provides a real incentive, a new incentive, for someone to come to work here. And, it also gives people a reason to stay here and literally buy into the community.”

Founded more than 100 years ago, the neighborhood in which IIT has seen its share of growth, development, and decay.

“When I was a student at IIT, this neighborhood was a combination of very unsafe (areas) or very rich African Americans, but it wasn’t a neighborhood that people went into,” recalls McKee. “So it’s completely changed.”

“This is really the first time that we’ve seen the opportunity to buy into the community by having the faculty and staff live next door to the campus as part of a new mixed-income community,” Baker notes, adding that the program has been so successful, that IIT is developing a new property and will offer faculty and staff a $7,500 forgivable loan to move in.

Snyderman says more than 20 companies in Illinois have signed up for the program, and another “20 are currently filling out their paperwork.” As part of an organization that tries to increase affordable housing, she worries that the supply of won’t ever be able to keep up with the demand.

“Homeownership is really out of reach for average working families throughout the region and rental housing is not the safe backup plan that people have assumed,” she notes. The fact is, “homeownership rates for working families, for people with $90,000 in annual earnings,” declined over the past decade.

“When we started this program, we were looking at it as a great tool to help employees afford housing in high job growth areas where the housing market is out of reach. But we’ve discovered it is an effective redevelopment and reinvestment strategy also,” Snyderman adds.

And, it nearly eliminates the commute.

Sept. 27, 2004.