Report critiques Diversity Assurance program

? Weaknesses and complexities noted, new village board begins discussion on one of the venerable tools in OP's diversity management.

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By BOB SKOLNIK

Last week the new Oak Park village board indicated that it plans to take a more critical look at the village's longstanding Diversity Assurance Program (DAP). The village board met last Thursday evening in a nearly 4-hour study session to receive and discuss a report on the DAP program prepared by the village's Housing Programs Advisory Committee (HPAC).

After hearing a summary of the report by HPAC Chairperson Max Dieber, Trustee Bob Milstein set the tone, and probably raised a few eyebrows.

"The day of the cash cow has to come to an end and the day of accountability has to begin," said Milstein.

The Diversity Assurance Program was established 20 years ago, and its goal is to help maintain Oak Park as an integrated and diverse community. The program gives certain owners of rental buildings with four or more units grants, loans, and, for certain buildings called Option A buildings, rental reimbursement for up to three months for vacant units.

In exchange, building owners who are part of the program agree to market their apartments through the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. The Housing Center markets the apartments in ways that seek to promote racial integration in Oak Park.

In 1995, the program established a goal of having the tenants of program buildings be, ideally, 60-80 percent white. More generally, the program seeks to avoid having buildings that are monoracial.

More effective on the east side

The report indicated several problems with the program.

First, the program is only partially effective in promoting diversity. According to the 1995 diversity standard, the report concluded that "only 50 percent of participating buildings show an increase in racial diversity."

The report suggests that the 1995 definition of diversity be changed. It notes that the 2000 census shows that 58 percent of all renters in Oak Park are white and 32 percent are African-American and that the ideal percentages of the program should be changed to reflect this. In Oak Park as a whole, the population is 59 percent white and 22 percent African-American, according to the village's community profile. The report also suggests that the definition of diversity be expanded to include Hispanic and Asians. Under this standard, the report concludes that "58 percent of the buildings in the program are showing increases in diversity."

We're losing diversity in the village and that must be addressed," said Housing Center President Rick Kuner.

Dieber suggested that the program needs to expand its focus to encourage integration throughout the Oak Park and not just concentrate on encouraging whites to rent on Austin Boulevard or east of Ridgeland.

[The program has focused on] "increasing white demand in places where there wouldn't be white demand," Dieber told the board. "We're a little uncomfortable with that. If diversity is good on one side of the village, it is good on the other side as well. There is a need to market other parts of the village to stimulate African-American demand. The goal is achieve a unitary housing market in the village where every corner of the village is equally attractive to every group."

Expensive subsidies

The weak rental market in recent years has made the program increasingly expensive for the village. Rental reimbursement, available only to buildings in the program that are considered hard to rent?#34;and usually hard to rent to whites?#34;have skyrocketed in the last few years.

Rental reimbursement takes place when a vacant apartment cannot be rented to a tenant who will meet the diversity goals. The subsidy, which comes from the village's general fund, is 80 percent of the rent for the 31st to 120th day of the vacancy after the unit is considered market ready.

In 2000, when the rental market was tight, the village spent only $12,157 on rental reimbursement costs, but that increased to $194,945 in 2003 before dropping 20 percent to a still high $155,490 in 2004, according to the report.

The weak rental market has hurt the program in other ways. Most apartment buildings in Oak Park are not part of the DAP and most do not market through the Housing Center. The number of clients assisted by the Housing Center has dropped to 3,732 in 2004 from a high of 5,591 in 1999. The report concluded that the Housing Center must put a high priority on expanding the number of clients that it serves.

The report recommended that the Housing Center increase its marketing and the village provide more incentives to the Housing Center for marketing units in the DAP. The report also recommended that the Housing Center seek a more diverse group of staff and volunteers that might better match the demographics of apartment seekers?#34;especially the need for more youth.

The Housing Center currently provides escorted visits to certain buildings in Oak Park. "We only escort to buildings that need white demand," Housing Center Executive Director Aggie Stempniak said in a telephone interview.

The report recommended that the village needs to clarify its definition of diversity and of what it calls an "affirmative move" or a move which will further the village's diversity goals.

Some trustees expressed their amazement that such fundamental terms in such a long-running program remain unclear in a community that has long been recognized as one of the leaders in the nation at promoting and fostering integration.

"I am astonished that the leaders and innovators don't have definitions for fundamental terms," said new Trustee Geoff Baker.

Trustees expressed frustration that there were not good measurements of the success of the program.

Martha Brock also noted that the Housing Programs Advisory Committee had only one African-American member and Committee Chairperson Dieber told the board that they are holding one vacancy on the committee open while seeking another minority member.

Committee member Greg Sorg pointed out that whatever the shortcomings of the program, Oak Park has been doing something right, noting that the village is much more diverse than surrounding communities.

Everyone involved recognized that maintaining diversity is a cherished goal and a difficult issue.

"I believe the program is an effort on the part of the village to wrestle with an issue that is not easy," Dieber told the board. "It's a hard issue to deal with."

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