By Dan Haley
Last year Oak Park's village government paid $15,000 to have a well-respected fair housing organization conduct blind testing to determine if local landlords were discriminating against potential tenants on the basis of race or disability.
And to the surprise and the horror of everyone involved in housing issues in the village, the answer was a resounding, sickening yes. Yes, a wide range of landlords tested were discriminating in the whole range of ways we'd naively assumed only happened in other less enlightened communities.
Black testers were told the unit they wanted to see was already rented. Phone calls from black testers were not readily returned. Black testers were shown fewer apartments than the white control group of testers. Black testers were less likely to be offered details about security deposits and credit checks – those signals of interest by a landlord that they actually want you to live in their building.
Things weren't any prettier for the hearing impaired testers who were hung up on among other indignities.
That Oak Park chose to test itself is, as one trustee noted, the only, only positive thing in this otherwise discouraging situation. Few cities, not under orders from the Justice Department, at least, would ever consider testing themselves for housing discrimination. But, obviously, Oak Park should have made the investment a good many years ago.
It feels clear that we have deluded ourselves with our well wishes and our yellowing press clippings about our exceptionalism in fostering integration. Turns out that all the sincere but untested bonhomie about diligence and constancy being essential to keeping a town truly integrated racially was absolutely true. But, you actually have to do the work. Building owner by building owner. Program by program. Year after year. And once in a while, when there is evidence of backsliding, you have to hand someone their head.
Village Trustee Glenn Brewer was around the table Friday morning as a group of village staff and elected officials talked about the HOPE Fair Housing Center report. There is no doubt among those who have read this report that the result is unrelentingly discouraging. One official talked about the possibility that HOPE itself would bring a complaint over a case involving an accommodation for a disabled tester. Then Brewer talked about the village board needing "to take a multi-pronged approach," one prong of which was potentially bringing suit against a landlord.
Enforcement actions absolutely need to be on the table. But so do far better and tougher training requirements for local landlords. Seems clear from the numbers presented Friday that village required annual landlord training on discrimination and a range of other topics has become much more optional than demanded. Potential tenants will need to be straightforwardly told the ways that even sainted Oak Park landlords can and do subtly discriminate in renting.
And the landlords themselves – and we're talking about the whole range from the three-flat owner to owners of hundreds of units – need to get serious about actively policing themselves. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) was once among the village's most influential and important groups. Heard Monday they are down to nine members. We need a BOMA resurrection.
This is no time to nitpick, raise questions or doubts about the testing, make excuses or use as leverage to get after a program of which one has been critical.
Oak Park, in its boldest and most essential aspect of choosing to be integrated, has been found to be guilty of actively, consciously discriminating on the basis of race. This is abhorrent and unacceptable. Wide and then focused steps need to be taken to repair the damage we have done to our reputation but more vitally the damage we have done to our potential neighbors.
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