There are three things I know in which Oak Park residents take tremendous pride, and a dash of arrogance: Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, and their Fair Housing Ordinance. All of these things are great, but to me, the Fair Housing Ordinance is the sole item that makes Oak Park truly better than other similar Chicago suburbs. The historic Oak Park Fair Housing Act of 1968, made housing discrimination illegal in Oak Park and, more importantly, it enacted policies to stop racist white housing policies.
While Oak Parkers like to think themselves responsible for this radical housing policy, true credit belongs to Martin Luther King, who in 1966, came to Chicago to start his northern campaign against racism with the Fair Housing Campaign.
The 1960s was the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Young progressives from all over the country, including Oak Park, who were passionate about ending racism, were going to the South to fight “racism in America.” Racism and legalized segregation, to many white progressives, was an issue that existed “in the South,” not in Chicago, and especially not in Oak Park. Dr. King’s Chicago Fair Housing Campaign exposed northern racism to the world, and, more pointedly, it provided a mirror to northern white liberals about the racism in their own communities.
At a rally at Soldier Field in the summer of 1966, Dr. King said, “We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the North.” In 2020 more than 50 years later, the evidence of poverty and the spiritual and economic lynching in Chicago is still vividly alive today.
Instead of keeping with the legacy of MLK and a welcoming community, Oak Park is becoming more exclusive and unattainable for low-income black folks. Oak Park, once a leader in racial housing integration, is pushing more black and low-income folks out of the village with the high cost of apartments and taxes. Essentially, the lack of low-income affordable housing is turning Oak Park into a northern Jim-Crow, “No Blacks Allowed” community.
It is time for Oak Park to take the lead again and demand racially and economically integrated housing:
The Oak Park Fair Housing Act was a huge step toward ending systemic racism, but that was in 1968. In 2020, it is time for Oak Park to boldly recommit to an economically and racially diverse village.
Recently there was a fight among Village Board Trustees to renew funding for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. Because of the advocacy of community members and Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, the organization narrowly succeeded in receiving the monies needed for the only affordable housing organization focused on racial integration. In 2017, the trustees voted against a progressive bill for affordable housing that would tax developers on new housing developments. This bill passed in many other suburbs, including Evanston. Under pressure from community advocates, the board in 2018 passed a much weaker Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that only asks developers to set aside 10 percent of the units or pay $100,000 in fees, making it one of the weakest inclusionary zoning bills in the Chicago area.
The best way for the village of Oak Park to honor Martin Luther King and his legacy against racism, is to fight for affordable housing. Here are four tangible ways to do that:
1. Demand that the village continue funding the Oak Park Regional Housing Center in 2020.
2. Demand that trustees add a progressive development tax, similar to Evanston, that will tax all new housing developers at 25 percent, and increase the fees in lieu to $250,000. Oak Park can then use that money to provide affordable housing units.
3. Change the zoning ordinance to cover all of Oak Park. Currently, large areas of Oak Park (i.e. Madison Street) are excluded from the ordinance.
4. Demand that developers build affordable housing integrated with “regularly” priced housing. Oak Park should ensure that it doesn’t build pockets of affordable housing separated from new housing development.
Dr. King’s legacy was much more than personal calls to judge every person by the content of their character. His legacy is to eliminate racism by providing an “equal economic playing field” for us all. To finally eradicate racism, we have to demand affordable housing and a racially and economically diverse community.
ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is a west suburban resident who is involved in multiple service organizations and projects in, and around, Oak Park. Her writing can be found on her blog, sharhondatribune.com.