A special commission charged with fighting racial discrimination in Oak Park's rental housing market held its first meeting, Tuesday, tentatively forming a 12-member task force made up of citizens and village officials.
The commission was created in response to a report released in February showing that property management companies and other owners of rental units in Oak Park had discriminated against African-American tenants and those with hearing disabilities.
The commission, which includes chairmen of the village's Housing Programs Advisory Committee, Community Relations Commission and Disability Access Commission, along with their trustee liaisons and other village officials, set a tentative date of Oct. 31 for the taskforce to complete its work, but no final decision was made.
Establishing the goals and expectations for the planned taskforce was the primary objective of the commission.
Commissioners agreed that education of renters could be a key factor in rooting out discrimination when it happens. Cedric Melton, the village's director of Community Relations, has said that the village only received a handful of complaints concerning rental discrimination over the last 20 years and none have been credible.
John Murtagh, former chairman of the Community Relations Commission, a citizen advisory board, said the problem could partly be due to the fact that the Community Relations Department has been reduced to a single employee over the last several decades.
"There was a time when there were 10 or 15 people on that staff," Murtagh said. "When you do that, you make a budgetary decision and an administrative decision; you are hurting the ability to enforce discrimination [ordinances], so you are part of it."
He said that in order to figure out the cause of the discrimination practices, "you have to go deep."
"You don't really want to go deep; you want to say that this was just a hiccup," he said. "Well, I don't know as a resident if it's just a hiccup or not."
Trustee Glenn Brewer said the village will never be able to end every form of discrimination, but added, "In our little slice of the pie, we need to do everything we can to make sure our process works in detecting discrimination and letting people know that there are venues you can use if you feel you have been discriminated against."
Trustee Bob Tucker said the commission could charge the taskforce with reviewing the structural overview of the Community Relations Department.
"What is the proper structure? Is it increasing Cedric's staff? Is it doing away with Cedric's department? I don't know," Tucker said.
Tucker argued that the taskforce should also explore making testing on housing discrimination an ongoing component of any proposal brought forward.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb said he wants the taskforce to explore accountability of the various housing agencies involved "to find out where things went wrong and correct them."
The commission will meet again on March 17 at 5:30 p.m. at village hall.
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