Why Oak Park still needs the Housing Center

Racial discrimination may be less than in years past, but integration is still not a free market matter

Opinion

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By BOB SKOLNIK

Like an aging relative, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center wants to remind everyone that it's still around and still needed. So the Housing Center put on a forum at the Oak Park Public Library titled "The Housing Center: Our Future Oak Park Still Needs Us."

A panel, which included Bobbie Raymond Larson, who founded the Housing Center in 1972, agreed that the center's work has been vital in maintaining Oak Park as a stable, integrated community.

"We are a national leader," said Raymond Larson. "We are a model for this country in diversity."

The other panelists, Oak Park residents John Lukehart, senior associate with the Leadership Council on Metropolitan Open Communities an open housing organization, and Reginald Winston, a member of the board of the Housing Center, agreed.

The Housing Center, located at 1041 South Blvd., helps renters find apartments in Oak Park in a way that achieves "meaningful and lasting racial diversity throughout Oak Park and the surrounding communities," according to the Housing Center's mission statement.

The Housing Center works with apartment seekers to try and ensure that their individual choices promote racial diversity.

The panelists, and Housing Center staff, fear that many think that Oak Park has achieved stable integration and, especially with a soft rental market, the services of the Housing Center are not as vital as they once were in the tumultuous 1970s.

"Diversity is not a destination; it's an ongoing process," said Housing Center Executive Director Agnes Stempniak. "We haven't arrived; we still have a ways to go. We need to educate our new constituents. There are a lot of people who are new in town."

Lukehart told the audience, which included two current village trustees and all three newly elected trustees, that there is still a high level of segregation in the Chicago metropolitan housing market and while racial discrimination is less than it once was, it still exists. Lukehart believes that integration cannot be simply left to the free market and that racial steering is still common.

Approximately 15-24 percent of apartments in Oak Park from as many as 200 landlords are listed with the Housing Center. Landlords agree to lease their units with a goal of maintaining a stable racial balance. Many market exclusively through the Housing Center, whose staff not only provides listings, but takes prospective renters to visit available apartments. Apartments marketed through the Housing Center are maintained with high standards.

The center counsels apartment seekers to make choices consistent with promoting integration. Their methods have been considered controversial by some. A white person and an African American will not necessarily be shown the same listings as the center seeks to ensure racial balance throughout Oak Park. As a practical matter white apartment seekers will almost always be encouraged to consider apartments east of Ridgeland. Apartment seekers of all races will be encouraged to consider areas that they may not have previously considered.

Winston told the audience how the Housing Center helped make him feel welcome as an African American man with a white wife when he was looking for housing in Oak Park.

The panelists continually made the point that the center is changing and adapting. The Housing Center has increased its advertising and marketing efforts and upgraded its Internet site which gets more than 30,000 visits annually, according to Stempniak.

According to its 2004 annual report, the center was able to help 817 clients?#34;519 white and 149 African American?#34;find apartments in Oak Park out of a total of 2,744 rental clients.

The center is trying to change with the times and adapt to different circumstances. Affordability is becoming as big an issue as integration with property values rising and apartments being converted into condominiums.

"The Housing Center is not an agency that was created and stays the same," said Raymond Larson. "We have to keep morphing ourselves. We have to get a whole new audience."

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