Last week, John Murtagh [Is segregation in Oak Park’s future? Viewpoints, Oct. 24] responded to my recent piece regarding integration in Oak Park’s housing market [Here’s to the next 40 years, Viewpoints, Oct. 17]. He missed the point of my assertion by confusing structural forces with individual actions.

It is a common conflation because Americans rarely talk about structures. We are a society based on individualism and we tend to focus on personal actions. But, as my mentor, John Lukehart, used to say, “We have to address the structures because it’s the structures that do the dirty work.”

In this case, the issue regarding segregation is not whether current Oak Parkers would take flight. It is about where newcomers to Oak Park will move within the community. To deal with that, we need a structure to promote integration and overcome a regional paradigm of segregation. The Housing Center is at the heart of that structure.

My assertion is not just speculation. It is based on empirical data and social science research. Every year, the Housing Center serves over 3,000 households looking for apartments in Oak. The pattern we have observed over the past 40 years has remained the same. Clients come to see us with preconceptions of where it is best for them to live in Oak Park. The primary basis for these preconceptions is their perceptions of the racial makeup of neighborhoods in Oak Park and the communities that border Oak Park.

I wish I could tell you that people have grown more interested in moving in ways that promote integration, but they have not. We must have proactive intentional effort to address and combat misperceptions in order to generate a pattern of integration. The Housing Center provides the necessary intentional effort.

Promoting integration is something the Housing Center can do that the private sector cannot. When clients use our service, we have the ability to inform them of apartments they may not have considered otherwise. In this process, we can encourage clients to consider apartments that would sustain or improve integration within the community.

We are successful in this effort 75 percent of the time. When clients call owners directly, owners rightly try to rent the apartments clients call about. Private owners are not in the business to turn down prospective renters and suggest looking elsewhere to promote integration. That would be an unreasonable demand. Predictably, moves made in this direct manner fail to promote integration over half the time. We should not fool ourselves into believing that we can rely on the private market to function as a structure for integration. Business is their purpose. Meaningful and lasting racial diversity is the Housing Center’s mission.

Other communities once had diversity programs similar to ours. Most ended or scaled back their programs, resulting in losses of diversity. In most cases, rapid change took place. In others, attempts to increase minority representation failed. And in others they failed to integrate a diverse population. None of them recognized that housing is dynamic and efforts must continue.

We cannot make the same mistake. We need the structure the Housing Center provides to ensure a diverse and integrated future.

Rob Breymaier is executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (www.oprhc.org).

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