Forty percent (20,000) of Oak Park residents live in rented apartments. All are protected by the village’s Fair Housing Ordinance. All are potential discrimination complaint filers. Most never have a reason. We live in a village of people who understand and respect our neighbors’ rights.
If you walk across the street to avoid a black man, you are normally not charged with discrimination. If you are a landlord and tell a Hispanic client that an apartment is occupied and it is not, you are likely to be charged with discrimination.
The word “discrimination” has sent shivers up many Oak Park landlords, brokers and agents. Being found guilty of discrimination in housing can destroy a career or bankrupt a business.
In December 2012, Oak Park signed a contract with HOPE Fair Housing Center to conduct surveys that might identify discrimination on the part of landlords, brokers and agents. The survey cost the village $15,000.
The Oak Park Village Board heard the report on the survey on Feb. 18. The results were dismal. HOPE reported that there had been six violations of the Fair Housing Ordinance. The HOPE Executive Summary stated: “The level and egregiousness [i.e. very bad and easily noticed] of the discrimination found in these tests were startling.” The reaction of the village board, staff, and residents was disbelief and rage. The publisher of Wednesday Journal wrote that night, “It feels clear that we have deluded ourselves with our well wishes and our yellowing press clippings about our exceptionalism in fostering integration.” A village board trustee seemed to describe the feelings of the entire village. He said, “Are we who we think we are?”
With urgency, the village board immediately proposed a task force to review and examine the enforcement of current laws and ordinances, evaluate community education, and the role of housing-related agencies. A task force was selected. It was stipulated early on that the names, addresses, etc. of the violators would not be available. HOPE advised that the only evidence they would provide was the Report for the village of Oak Park, a limited document. In July, the task force was advised that HOPE had filed a complaint with HUD against an Oak Park property management company. No additional information was provided.
With minimal evidence, the six-month task force spent the bulk of its time on interviews with former employees with extensive knowledge of Oak Park’s discrimination and enforcement, discussion of issues, and preparation of the board report.
On Nov. 12, the Fair Housing Task Force Report was approved by the task force members. The following day, it was reported that HOPE had dropped its complaint against an Oak Park property management company. Five additional cases taken by HOPE remain open. None were sent to HUD indicating that those complaints were weaker than the one dismissed.
There is a huge irony in the HOPE survey affair. In a 2009 report prepared by HUD, Oak Park was advised that the village had no fair housing or unfair segregation discrimination suits from 1997 through June of 2009. They also advised that the village had three discrimination cases in the same period. All three had been dismissed locally. The village records indicate no discrimination cases since 2009.
What does the village do now with the Oak Park Fair Housing Task Force Report? Its recommendations were based on the assumption that discrimination had occurred in the village. It was based on a belief that our partners had failed us and a reinforcement of rules governing the landlords, brokers, and agents was needed. Unfortunately, it is too late to change the report into a thank you to the hundreds of public and private professionals that serve the 20,000 renters professionally and respectfully every day.
“Are we who we think we are?” That’s up to each of us to determine.