The seeds of discontent on Oak Park’s village board toward the Oak Park Regional Housing Center go back well over a decade. When the first criticisms over ongoing taxpayer funding of the iconic, integration-fostering agency were raised, it was seen by most, including this editorial page, as an unworthy attack.
The frustrations among a minority of village board members have continued, though, through every succeeding village board and now have grown into something approaching a chorus. And our defense of the housing center is not as absolute as it once was.
Monday night, the village board, in preparing its budget for the next fiscal year, turned to a staff recommendation that funding for the organization be eliminated. With village finances as tight as they are, with pressure for relief so high among taxpayers, there will be those on the board who might see cutting $300,000-plus from the budget as an easy win.
Our advice: Don’t do it. It would be a short-sighted overreaction to the decades-long challenge of maintaining Oak Park as a racially integrated village. Oak Park isn’t integrated by accident. It isn’t integrated because the market dictated that outcome. Oak Park is racially integrated because conscious choices were made, and must continue to be made, to foster what the current jargon would describe as “affirmative moves.”
That said, the housing center has serious issues and they’ve gotten worse in recent years. Fast and determined action is needed by the housing center’s board and Athena Williams, its just appointed executive director. The housing center is stuck two decades back. No one rents an apartment by walking into a storefront looking for listings. And the center has been agonizingly slow in contending with the shift to digital search technology.
The housing center has also been far too comfortable, relying far too much on taxpayer funding. It needs to develop alternative funding sources from foundations and individuals. And fast.
So, yes, the village board has every reason to turn the screws on the housing center. It has over recent years set stricter reporting measures. And the results haven’t been favorable in producing more affirmative moves. That has to change.
But just as the village rightly partners and funds the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation and the Oak Park Residence Corporation as the best third-party means to accomplish goals in development and housing, it needs the housing center to survive and thrive to maintain integration.
Can funding to the housing center be reduced this year? Yes. Next year too. But cutting off funding entirely would be short-sighted. Light the fire. And then allow the new executive director and her team to shake off the cobwebs and move the housing center forward.