Oak Park has a lot of apartment units. The village was built that way back in the 1920s and today some half of all housing units in Oak Park are rentals (or condos). That's got advantages and disadvantages. The apartment stock greatly extends Oak Park's economic diversity as a first stop for future homebuyers and as a destination for others seeking entry for their kids into local schools, or an easy commute to the Medical District.
Reality is that our apartments are also home to many of Oak Park's African-American families and it is where, in recent weeks, two aspects of Oak Park's aspirations have been thrust to the front page.
There was the HOPE Fair Housing report which indicated a troubling pattern of racial discrimination against blacks looking to move to Oak Park. And, in the past week, there have been two shootings in a single apartment building on Austin Boulevard. That would be the third shooting along Austin Boulevard in the past six months. All of these incidents suggest, though it is not yet proven, some spillover from the gun violence and gang warfare that scars Austin.
In both the discrimination and in the violence, Oak Park is failing to live up to the promise we believe this village holds to be a welcome and safe community for all. For some few in Oak Park, the juxtaposition of these two stories proves out all their simplistic fears about black people or poor people or, especially, poor black people. Oak Park ought to discriminate against likely black gangbangers, they'd say. And at the same time they'd point to the recent violence as evidence that landlords ought to discriminate more.
Our view, though, is that Oak Park's village government has neatly threaded the needle on this complex discussion. Through its discrimination testing, Oak Park has been entirely clear that housing discrimination is against the law and the values of this town. And in passing a Crime Free Housing ordinance several months ago, the village board made clear that there is no way this town accepts the inevitability of gang crime and its indiscriminate violence jumping into Oak Park.
Everyone is welcome. And everyone needs to live up to the shared expectations of this community. That is a worthy message.
Now the challenge for making these village principles live day-by-day falls to village staff. Required annual training for all landlords — the place where both the issue of screening tenants vs. discriminating against them is supposed to be covered, and the same place where the simplified-eviction aspects of the new Crime Free Housing program are to be laid out — seems to have been overlooked as a mandatory requirement by staff.
After the shooting on Austin Boulevard last August, police told a community group meeting that the building in question was "troubled." Police officials pledged to turn up police presence but also bring in the Community Relations staffer, call in building inspectors and generally send a message to a landlord to shape up his operation. How intensely has that happened?
Maintaining a safe and integrated community on the border of a community that is not integrated and not always safe is a great challenge. Oak Park is not a community that throws up its hands when faced with a challenge. Time to focus, to bring resources, to unite, not divide.
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