Despite Oak Park's reputation as among the "few truly integrated communities in the Chicago metro area," a new report commissioned by the village government shows a "startling" level of discrimination in the village's rental housing market against racial minorities and people with disabilities.
The fair housing testing report was prepared by HOPE Fair Housing Center, a non-profit which works to eliminate housing discrimination. The report, received by village staff in late January, compares the treatment of pairs of testers -- white versus African American rental applicants as well as the treatment of those with hearing disabilities.
African American applicants were offered fewer visits to available rental units by leasing agents. They also had fewer phone calls returned by apartment management firms, compared to their white counterparts. African American applicants also were given less information concerning rental terms, "and in some cases representatives made discouraging statements to them rather than the encouraging and positive remarks made to white testers."
The report shows that in paired testing of sixteen applicants, more than twice as many white applicants were shown units. Eleven applicants shown units were white, while five were African American.
"This represents 79 percent of white testers, (11 of 14), versus just 33 percent of African-American testers (5 of 15)," the report states. "This is a significant and insidious finding, as an African-American individual or family contacting a representative in Oak Park seeking rental housing would have no way of knowing that they were being treated differently because of their race."
In tests showing differential treatment for hearing impaired applicants, callers were hung up on in multiple instances and given differences in availability of units, amenities and security deposits.
"The tests demonstrate that in Oak Park, in spite of its reputation, intention and progress in maintaining diversity, there are ongoing instances of racial discrimination that warrant follow-up, through additional periodic testing as well as fair housing education for rental representatives, management companies and potential renters," the report reads.
The HOPE report noted that despite Oak Park's poor showing on rental discrimination, it is at the forefront of assessing such inequities.
"Few if any cities or municipalities undertake this proactive self-testing unless pursuant to a settlement agreement or court order," the report states. Oak Park commissioned the testing study a year ago. During the summer and fall of 2013, HOPE sent testers into the field to conduct the testing.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said the contract for the test cost around $15,000 and was prompted by a 2010 study by consulting firm Mullin Lonegran & Associates recommending the analysis.
Oak Park's Community Relations Director Cedric Melton said when the village receives housing discrimination complaints—only a handful every year—it's his job to investigate, but most complaints are unfounded. Between 1997 and 2009 only three complaints reported to the department turned out to be discrimination, he said.
"When you get the information and some of the facts, it turns out to be more of an educational process that I'm engaged in on what is not discrimination if you're denied an application," Melton said.
He said complainants sometimes feel they are being discriminated against because they were rejected for having bad credit or other legitimate reasons.
Village leaders acknowledged the abysmal showing at a Friday meeting with Wednesday Journal, calling the report's finding "unexpected" and "very disappointing."
Village Trustee Glenn Brewer, who serves as liaison to the village's Housing Programs Advisory Committee, said the results pose the question, "Are we who we think we are?"
"I think you have to consistently check to make sure," he said. "The results answered the question to me — no. In some ways we are, but in some ways we aren't (who we think we are)."
He said the village now must establish a plan for combating such discrimination. Recommendations from HOPE Fair Housing call for the village government to extensively step up education of renters so they can spot and raise concerns over discrimination.
Pavlicek said educating renters could include distribution of public service announcements informing prospective renters of their rights. Trustee Bob Tucker said educating the public is only part of the solution.
"Education of the people on the frontline who are showing the apartments, that's another issue," Tucker said.
He said the report highlights what is "obviously a big problem."
"I feel both angry and sad, but it is not a condemnation of the entire community," Tucker said. "We are still a welcoming community. But this is a real serious problem."
Looking ahead, Brewer said, "What we feel is necessary is a multi-pronged approach to managers and landlords." He held out the option of the village taking landlords to court over discrimination issues. "You have to litigate sometimes." he said.
Tammie Grossman, who has overseen the village's housing programs for several years and the recently added responsibility for business services, said HOPE has said they already are considering bringing complaints against the unnamed housing management firms who were in violation of discrimination policies.
"HOPE may be using the list for other litigation purposes, so we're having conversations with the village attorney about that," she said. "They do want to take at least one of the cases through the complaint process through the (village) Community Relations Commission."
Grossman added: "I'm disappointed in the results. I'm surprised in the changing of the (rental) rates and saying apartments weren't available when they were available. That shocked me. That's pretty blatant discrimination."
The HOPE report calls for more thorough training of landlords and their staff members, who already undergo annual discrimination training required by village hall. The fair housing group also recommends that after training is increased that further testing should be considered in the future.
Bill Planek, co-owner of Oak Park Apartments and chairman of the Oak Park Building Owners and Managers Association, said in a telephone interview that discrimination against prospective tenants is "morally repugnant," "against the law," and "bad business."
"People who break the law should be held accountable," he said, calling the report a "black eye for the industry." Oak Park Apartments is among the largest multi-family property owners in Oak Park.
He said the nine-member BOMA is planning a meeting to discuss how to respond to the report and make sure it doesn't happen again in the future.
"The report is what it is and we need to make sure members understand the basics of housing law," he said, adding, "We don't know if it's a few bad apples or if people have gone off the rails and are doing things they shouldn't be doing."
Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which was established in 1972 to encourage integration in the village, said the HOPE report poses "an opportunity for us to remember that we can't just rest on the success of our past."
Breymaier noted that when the organization was first formed, Oak Park was 99 percent white. Today's racial makeup is 64 percent white, 21 percent African American, 7 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and 3 percent other.
The village Community Relations Commission should take a central role in tackling the issue of housing discrimination, Breymaier said.
"(They) used to be more involved in issues like this, and maybe they need to be reengaged," he said.
"My hope is that the report encourages people to get more involved and that it reminds us all that at the core of our community we have a community that values diversity," he said.