Within 200 feet of my home, there are three empty houses. The residents and their six children left this summer. They tried, but they could not afford to continue living in Oak Park. They were finding it hard to maintain a level family income, were living perilously as their house value declined, and were fearful as their retirement accounts disappeared. The families were like many other newer Oak Park families.
Is it any wonder that the new residents living near the Comcast building are concerned about the low-income proposal on Madison?
Dan Haley wrote recently that he loves walking and riding in central Oak Park. Dan sees it as a little piece of heaven. It is easier to feel a piece of heaven when you moved to Oak Park during the booming 20th century when jobs were plentiful, salaries were growing, pensions were lucrative, and the value of Oak Park homes was skyrocketing. It is easier to accept the Madison proposal when you feel secure.
Dan went on to say helping people who need a leg up seems like the generous thing to do. It is not easy to be generous when you fear major change in your neighborhood. The business community on Madison is deteriorating rapidly. When the nearby residents walk or ride by the Comcast building, they see pending blight rather than thinking about heaven. Logically, they see the housing proposal as a threat.
Village officials did not explain how the single-room occupancy fits into Oak Park’s housing strategy, or let residents know the impact of the proposal on the community. Instead, the Oak Park Housing Authority (a nonprofit organization that operates independent of the village), gleefully announced the proposal with press releases and tours of Chicago public housing.
The Housing Authority states that its research of the new facility has been extensive. In fact, the nonprofit’s board spent more than three hours discussing the subject over a period of 14 months. The discussions were not about feasibility; they were structuring the deal and planning how to execute it. Who is studying the feasibility and impact of the proposal? Who knows? The village and its partners could already have spent hundreds of hours on the subject, but how would we know?
In the 2009 local elections, 17 percent of Oak Park’s registered voters cast a ballot versus the presidential election turnout of 82 percent five months earlier. Riverdale and Melrose Park turned out 45 percent for their local races. Maybe 83 percent of our residents didn’t vote in the local elections because they don’t think their vote makes a difference. The current state of the Madison low-income housing proposal legitimizes that thought.
The summer nights on Lake and Marion streets were vibrant this year. Perhaps the vibrancy is a sign that Oak Park is recovering from its six-year morass. The budget crisis is not quite over, but the Oak Park spirit seems to be returning. Oak Park still faces daunting challenges – District 97’s millage, infrastructure repair, equipment replacement and improved relationships between our taxing bodies. We are getting back on our feet. That does not mean we are ready to run. Airlines tell parents to put on their oxygen mask before putting on their children’s masks. Perhaps Oak Park needs to put its mask on first and figure out its capabilities before generously launching new projects.
John Murtagh is an Oak Park resident who lives near the proposed development and is the former chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission.