Senior Manager, Communications and Strategy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
June 09, 2021
There is no shortage of challenges facing communities across the country today (economic recovery, housing and food insecurity, racial injustice issues, to name a few) and increasingly companies are stepping up to help solve them.
Businesses are now the most trusted institution in the world, a role they strengthened through the pandemic, and people expect corporations and CEOs to continue addressing the most pressing social and political issues even after the pandemic is over, Axios reports. According to new data 62% of respondents said they trust business to do with is right, compared to government (56%) and media (51%).
“At this point in time, businesses are such key contributors to the communities they serve and they play a pretty important role in helping to improve society,” says Jay Farner, CEO of Rocket Companies. “You have to then decide what matters most to you as a business and where can you have the biggest impact.”
In Detroit, where Rocket Mortgage and the Rock Family of Companies are based, housing insecurity has long been a challenge. Detroit is one of the largest predominantly Black cities in America and an increasing wealth gap over many years – especially between Black and white citizens – is closely tied to the fact that fewer Black people own homes.
When diving into research on the issue to determine where the company could best help, Farner and Dan Gilbert, founder of the Rock Family of Companies which Rocket Mortgage is part of, found that property tax foreclosure has been the biggest contributor to housing instability and blight in the city over the last 15 years.
In fact, while there are programs to help homeowners at risk of tax foreclosure, they are underutilized. The Rocket Community Fund’s Neighbor to Neighbor program found that 90% of tax delinquent Detroit homeowners would have qualified for full tax exemptions if they had applied for the program.
“It was very clear to us that property taxes that caused the majority of the blight in Detroit and the vast majority of citizens at one point were in tax foreclosure,” Gilbert told CBS This Morning.
To Dan and Jennifer Gilbert, property tax foreclosure seemed to be a systemic issue that was solvable, and in March 2021, the Rock Family of Companies announced it would make a $500 million commitment to help eliminate the risk of property tax foreclosure in Detroit through a $350 million commitment from the Gilbert Family Foundation and a $150 million commitment from the Rocket Community Fund.
The first investment is $15 million to eliminate the property tax debt owed by an estimated 20,000 low-income, Detroit homeowners.
“We're really doubling down now starting with the most severe issue that has created a lot of instability here in the city,” Farner said.
Not only will this investment drive housing stability across the city, but also it will preserve over $400 million in Detroit wealth. Additionally, Wayne County has pledged $5 million in joint investments to ensure that the systemic inequities and cycle of tax debt ends.
Listening to the community and employees
The initial $15 million tranche is only the start, and Farner says the focus of the next investments will be determined by working with the homeowners and families of the properties to learn what other factors are holding the family back. Identifying further barriers—such as employment, transporting, internet access—will steer the direction of further investments.
But at Rocket Mortgage, commitment to the community doesn’t end at tackling housing. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company leaders learned more and more about another issue plaguing the community: access to the internet.
A little over 30% of the Detroit families have zero access to the internet, Farner says, and during the pandemic those families were heavily impacted without the ability to work from home, educate their children, or even get access to healthcare and public safety information.
The company has already raised millions of dollars to help close the digital divide, and plan to continue bringing internet access to homes over the next four years. This year, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, a PGA event in late June 2021, will steer all efforts to increasing internet access.
Aside from the feel-good aspect of philanthropy, Farner says companies now more have a more keen business interest to solve problems in their communities. In a recent company survey, 97% of Rocket Mortgage and Rock Family of Companies employees said they feel good about the way the company gives back to the community.
“Those are your team members telling the world that that’s one of the ways they view a company as a great place to work,” Farner says. “The most challenging thing we all face is the is the challenge to win talent…doing these things, I think, is what can help set you apart and is a worthwhile investment.”