Let me preface these remarks by saying I believe Oak Park to be a unique social experiment in attempting to create and maintain a community where people from different ethnic backgrounds can successfully live together. Sadly, while the idea of battling segregation seems to no longer be a part of our national conversation, Oak Park remains committed to being a place of equality. Oak Park chose to be pro-active in accommodating the influx of black Americans. What may not be well understood is that the battle is not over and never will be.
I am certain some companies that manage rental units do, at times, discriminate against minorities. These companies should be exposed and punished. As I do not fully understand how rental units offered to people with disabilities are regulated, I will not comment on this aspect of the study.
Sadly, the HOPE Report is not a useful instrument to explore these problems as the design of the study contains some fundamental flaws that renders their conclusions suspect. A study like this one requires someone trained in social science research methods to design the study.
In an examination of the staff at HOPE, I can find no one with this training. Their "Lending Analyst" who "conducts systemic investigations in the lending and/or housing arenas" has a degree in Urban Planning, a degree that does not usually include any training in the kind of social science research design required here. Perhaps the lack of trained personnel may account for the flaws in the research design I have noted. It is difficult to understand why the village who commissioned this study did not more fully examine the qualifications of the HOPE staff before hiring them.
The report claims, "Testing was initially made difficult by the overall unprofessional, poor customer service offered by rental representatives to potential housing consumers" (page 5). Nowhere in the report do they explain what constitutes "unprofessional, poor customer service" nor enumerate the frequency of this behavior. It seems strange that people hired to rent units would behave in a manner that would make their job more difficult. If potential renters are receiving poor service, they are less likely to rent the apartment, thus placing the rental representatives in a position of losing their jobs.
There are a significant number of factors that could seriously affect the outcome of this study that were not discussed or included. Why? According to the report, "HOPE conducted 14 paired rental tests of eight different management companies offering rental units within the Village of Oak Park" (page 5). Nowhere do they explain the basis for selecting these management companies nor do they even define what they mean by "a management company."
Rental units are offered by a variety of entities. Which ones were included and which were not and what was the basis for inclusion and exclusion?
Would the owner/manager of a four-flat building where the owner lives in one unit and rents the other three qualify as a "management company"?
Was the Oak Park Residence Corporation or the Oak Park Regional Housing Center included as management companies? It would appear that these organizations are unlikely to discriminate. Why were they not included?
Was a distinction made between those companies that have resident managers and those that do not? This could be a significant factor.
Is the location of the rental unit relevant? I suspect rental units on the East and North borders of the village may be more likely to discriminate. HOPE again fails to explore that possibility.
Some rental properties are owned by people who live in Oak Park and others owned by people from other locales. It may be that owners from Oak Park have more of a stake in maintaining diversity in a community in which they live than those who have no interest in Oak Park other than as a place where they wish to maximize their profit. This could be a significant variable.
It is my contention that because HOPE failed to explain the basis of their selection of management companies and have apparently lumped all rental units and their management into one undifferentiated mass, the results of their research are therefore unreliable and their conclusions that "… there are ongoing instances of racial discrimination …" (page 5) is not supportable.
It may be the case that "the level and egregiousness of the discrimination found in these tests were startling" (page 2). However, the basic flaws in this study means it is not possible to confirm or deny these conclusions.
The results of this study should not be used as the basis of any policy changes or any other actions on the part of the village board to deal with problems of discrimination.
Jay Ruby, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of Anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn.
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