Oak Park risks losing its core value of diversity. Specifically, apartment buildings can segregate quickly if special care isn’t taken to market units affirmatively.

Those are two conclusions Rick Kuner, president of New Alternatives, Inc., reached in a 40-page analysis of Oak Park’s Diversity Assurance program. Diversity Assurance is geared toward upgrading the condition of larger multi-family rental buildings and expanding the list of housing choices in Oak Park to ensure racial diversity.

Dating back to 1984, Diversity Assurance provides loans and grants to apartment owners to help them overcome “racial steering, discrimination, and a lack of information about housing choices.” As of last year, 78 buildings with 1,539 units were included in the program, according to Kuner.

Kuner has a 17-year background in housing in Oak Park, spending time on the village’s Housing Programs Advisory Committee (HPAC) (1990-2001), as a village trustee (1997-2001) and on the Oak Park Housing Center board (2001 to 2007).

Kuner conducted the study starting last year because he felt the program was suffering from “benign neglect.” HPAC did an analysis of the program two years ago, with suggested recommendations that “crossed the legal line, he said.”

Any talks of maintaining diversity in the village cannot include racial quotas, which is against the law, Kuner said.

“Diversity numbers are slipping, and that’s because the village isn’t following through on its end,” he said. “Some apartment owners will do the right thing whether you’re watching them or not watching them, some won’t. Some you have to hit over the head with a baseball bat. That’s the last resort, but it happens.”

Kuner said Diversity Assurance is a solid program that doesn’t need radical changes, just some tweaking. Diversity started slipping in apartments in Oak Park in 1999, and he believes the village can’t lose sight of the challenge.

“This is fixable without a huge amount of controversy,” he said.

He recommends four strategies for strengthening the program: expanding regional housing options, adopting cost effective strategies, fostering constructive communication between agencies and individuals, and working together on the issue between the village and other related organizations.

It’s also important to nail down building improvements before there’s a further decline in quality, he said.

Without getting into illegal quota systems, the demand for housing among blacks and Asians is adequate in Oak Park apartments, Kuner said. However, whites and Hispanics are underrepresented in apartments. Annual licensing, which reports tenants by race and the number of vacant units in buildings, were what led Kuner to those conclusions.

Individual buildings are also re-segregating, he said. That can happen somewhat rapidly, Kuner said, since there is an annual 30 percent turnover rate across the village. On Austin Boulevard the annual turnover rate is 40 percent.

Kuner sent his evaluation to the Oak Park Housing Center and the Oak Park Residence Corporation, as well as to village officials.

“Without programs to expand people’s housing choices, segregation is always a concern,” said Rob Breymaier, Housing Center executive director. “We can see that everywhere else in the region where there’s very little effort to expand people’s housing choices, segregation persists.”

“There’s continuing need for attention to diversity in Oak Park, particularly on Austin Boulevard,” said Ed Solan, executive director of the Residence Corporation. “We do need to continually be concerned about re-segregation.”

Kuner also met with Village Manager Tom Barwin and Village Attorney Ray Heise to go over the evaluation. They were receptive to it, he said.

“I thought it was very helpful, interesting, informative and quite persuasive,” Barwin said of the evaluation. “I think the major thrust is that working toward diversity and assuring diversity requires a conscious effort and that was the main point…It highlighted the critical importance of intentionally building community.”

Barwin expects the village board to discuss the evaluation, possibly after adopting its 2008 budget later this year.

“This issue can get lost in the shuffle,” Kuner said. “People look at this and say, ‘Man this is really tough,’ and they’re right, it is tough. There are a lot of nuances and subtleties in this program, and for it to work well requires a remarkable level of cooperation among all kinds of folks.”

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