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Oak Park village trustees are rallying the efforts of various citizen commissions on housing, discrimination and the disabled to find solutions to a recently released report indicating inequities in Oak Park's rental housing market.
The village board voted Tuesday to establish an ad-hoc commission made up of the chairmen and board trustee liaisons of the village's Housing Programs Advisory Committee, Community Relations Commission and Disability Access Commission to study and provide recommendations. The trustee liaisons are Colette Lueck, Glenn Brewer and Bob Tucker.
Formation of the commission is in response to a report released earlier this month by the non-profit HOPE Fair Housing Center, showing discrimination against African Americans and those with hearing disabilities looking to rent in Oak Park.
The report was commissioned by the village last year at the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Oak Park is a recipient of HUD's community development block grant program, which distributes $1.5 million annually to the village. The block grant program requires the village to show that it is "taking steps to affirmatively further fair housing options" in Oak Park, Tammie Grossman, the village's director of development customer services, told trustees at Tuesday's board meeting.
"I think we're positioned in a good way for our continued HUD funding and also to address issues that we may not have been aware of had we not done the testing," Grossman said.
Trustee Adam Salzman said the various commissions can debate the policies on training and education but noted that the village does not have "an adequate mechanism for enforcing violations" of discrimination law.
"When you have violations of federal and local law, you need to have an enforcement mechanism with teeth," Salzman said. "I think what we have is delinquent property owners who are making decisions to break the law because they believe it is in their economic interest; the only way to communicate that it's not in their economic interest is to make them incur some serious legal fees."
Trustee Brewer said any future plan in dealing with housing discrimination must include enforcement of discrimination law.
"For those who have violated the law there needs to be more than just a slap on the wrist," he said.
Brewer noted, however, that when discrimination does occur the village would not be in a place to take action "because we are not the aggrieved" party.
Salzman suggested that the village could potentially take action against those in violation through the village human rights ordinance, which prohibits such discrimination.
"We should have a prosecutor and go after these folks," he said.
Ann Houghtaling, executive director of HOPE, told trustees that her organization could bring legal action against companies, which remain unnamed, identified in their paired testing. She said that such language was inserted into its contract with the village. She said it is not uncommon for municipalities to contract for the testing and then not take action to correct the discriminatory practices.
"I'm pleased the village did undertake this," she said. "I'm also pleased with the (village's public) response."
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb said the various village government housing programs and organizations also should be held accountable for allowing discriminatory rental practices from happening in the first place. He suggested that someone at village hall "should get fired" because of the abysmal results in the HOPE report.
"I would like to know," he asked Grossman, "and you don't have to name names for me – if you say by tomorrow, 'Fire the person in our village that should be accountable for this,' do you have somebody in mind? And if you don't why don't you?"
He said there needs to be accountability on the topic and that the ad-hoc committee "should investigate the housing organizations."
"This is what really bothers me is having six different housing agencies that I have a difficult time remembering all of their names; it makes it really difficult to hold somebody accountable," he said.
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