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Professional Opinion

Employee housing help in higher ed benefits community, too

Staff can own closer to campus while neighborhoods get economic boost
University Business, August 2016
Leigh Greden is advisor to the president, and Russ Olwell is interim director of government and community relations at Eastern Michigan University.
Leigh Greden is advisor to the president, and Russ Olwell is interim director of government and community relations at Eastern Michigan University.

Programs to help employees purchase housing near campus have gained favor in the past decade, both as an employee benefit and as a tool for community development.

Efforts such as Wayne State University’s involvement in Live Midtown in Detroit inspired Eastern Michigan University to develop its own “LiveYpsi” program to boost neighborhood revitalization in Ypsilanti.

The program encourages faculty and staff to buy homes in neighborhoods in need of housing stabilization.

LiveYpsi was designed to be modest in size, limited in cost and shared between the university and several partners. It focused on specific areas so the housing purchased could help revitalize those neighborhoods.

Since its 2012 launch, LiveYpsi has housed 30 faculty and staff members. That’s a small number, but in a city with a population under 20,000 and about 2,700 owner-occupied housing units, these new residents can have a positive impact on the community.

To measure the effectiveness of the program, we surveyed all participants. The results demonstrate that university home-buying programs encourage local housing purchases, and promote civic engagement.

Owning closer to campus

Faculty in particular note that the program helped them decide to buy a home in Ypsilanti rather than in another nearby area.

Staff, meanwhile, said the program allowed them to purchase a home so they didn’t have to continue renting.

Safer than we thought

Respondents also felt comfortable in their new housing and safe in their neighborhoods. The program helped participants see that the city was safer than they initially believed.

One homebuyer wrote, “I never knew that there were safe pockets of neighborhoods in Ypsilanti. When I began looking, I considered only two neighborhoods. Through the program I was able to learn more about other safe and friendly neighborhoods.”

Involved in the city

LiveYpsi participants reported they felt more involved in the life of the city. One homebuyer said, “I have had more time to volunteer with community organizations and get involved in projects that I otherwise would not be able to balance with a long commute home.”

Homebuyers also reported greater involvement in community organizations (66 percent) and local arts and culture (64 percent), as well as increased participation at a local house of worship (23 percent). Many participants also joined neighborhood watch groups (28 percent).

Shopping local

New residents help pump money into the local economy. More than three-quarters of respondents said they shopped inYpsilanti at least once per week, while 28 percent shopped in the city daily.

Local eateries also benefitted, with 69 percent of respondents saying they dined at Ypsilanti restaurants at least once per week.

Lessons for other campuses

Based on survey responses and the program results to date, we have identified a number of best practices other campuses should follow when considering a home-buying benefit:

  • Start the program in a concentrated geographic area, so that change is visible and measurable.
  • Make sure that all participants are clear on the benefits of the program, as well as potential tax costs.
  • If part of the goal is to encourage employees to enroll their children in local schools, build informational activities about education into the program—otherwise, participants may not consider it an option.
  • Work with public and private sector partners to build impact. LiveYpsi partnered with Washtenaw County and the DTE Foundation to expand its impact.

Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. A housing program that improves neglected areas only increases the profile and potential of the entire campus community.

Leigh Greden is advisor to the president, and Russ Olwell is interim director of government and community relations at Eastern Michigan University.

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