It’s only a half-block east from Austin Boulevard, but it was notable Tuesday when the Oak Park Regional Housing Center opened its new and first office in the Austin neighborhood. Under the auspices of its West Cook Homeownership Center, the housing center has a different mission in Austin but one predicated on the same values of integration and inclusion that have driven its pioneering work in Oak Park over 46 years.
With Bethel New Life, an iconic West Side nonprofit, dropping its services for potential homeowners in Austin and Garfield Park, the West Cook Homeownership project of the housing center has stepped in. The goal, according to Athena Williams, a housing center staff member running this effort, is to find and then help current West Side residents take the step from renting to owning in their neighborhood. That effort involves both group training and two hours of individual financial counseling.
Once prospective buyers are ready to begin looking for a house, West Cook’s plan is, in part, to connect them with other Austin-based nonprofits that are actively working to renovate and flip homes in the neighborhood. The West Side Health Authority, for example, has been actively working to create construction jobs on the West Side, to overhaul homes within close proximity, with a goal of building tight communities of neighbors.
Rob Breymaier, executive director of the housing center, is enthusiastic about Austin, and what he calls, and wants you to call, the Greater West Side — everything from Garfield Park through Austin and into Oak Park and River Forest. “Austin has a ton of potential. It is a really good community facing a renaissance of sorts. People need to believe in that,” he says.
He and Williams see all sorts of deepening ties in recent years between Oak Park and the West Side as individuals and entities begin to build trust and figure out ways to work jointly.
Breymaier is also direct in understanding the mixed response the Oak Park Housing Center can engender as it ventures into Austin. That’s the reason this effort carries the West Cook moniker, why it is led by a black woman who has long lived in Austin.
“It matters that the area code is 773 and not 708,” says Breymaier.
And it is why he talks about the housing center “leading from behind” on the West Side. “The word Oak Park is a limiting factor anywhere outside Oak Park. It becomes a hurdle,” he says. It is why the housing center is working in partnership with long-established West Side nonprofits, including West Side Health Authority, Austin Coming Together, the Leader’s Network and the 15th District police.
“We need to say, ‘Here are services we can provide if the community wants them,'” says Breymaier. “Oak Parkers can do good in Austin but it has to start with respect” for the ongoing efforts of Austin’s existing leaders.
That sensitivity has not always been offered by Oak Parkers who can come across in full “white savior” mode. And it explains why only slowly are walls of distrust lowering between leaders on both sides of the boulevard.
“How do we trust one another? Take advantage of each other’s strengths and experience? We have to acknowledge that we have had a system that only intentionally works for some of us,” says Breymaier.
For Williams, part of the path to greater trust is in organizations working together to expand home ownership in Austin among the people who have built the community. “I want people in Austin to become homeowners. I don’t want to see people displaced. I want to strengthen the traditional residents of Austin and help them buy homes,” she says.