A fair housing nonprofit has lodged a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against Oak Park Apartments, alleging the property owner’s policy of rejecting applicants who have previously been evicted is discriminatory, with particular harm to Black women. The complaint likewise alleges the policy perpetuates and increases residential segregation in Oak Park.

“This policy and practice discriminates on the basis of race, as well as race and sex, and disproportionally harms Black women in their search for rental housing in the integrated, well-resourced, and predominately white community of Oak Park, thus artificially limiting the housing opportunities available to them and increasing the likelihood of living in racially segregated, lower-resourced communities,” the complaint reads.

The July 20 filing is in direct response to Oak Park Apartment’s policy that prospective tenants “cannot have a bankruptcy, judgment, eviction, foreclosure, history of late rent payments or short sale.” The policy was posted on the agency’s website on its list of application requirements, all of which must be met for applicants to be shown available units. 

The complainant, Wheaton-based nonprofit HOPE Fair Housing Center, is requesting that HUD launch an investigation as the agency’s complaint “raises systemic allegations and novel legal issues under the Fair Housing Act.” 

“We want to put an end to blanket no-evictions policies,” said Josefina Navar, HOPE’s deputy director. “We hope that awareness of these discriminatory effects compels the housing industry to tailor their policies to minimize and preferably stop the harm to families and communities.” 

Oak Park Apartments, which owns more than 65 apartment buildings primarily in Oak Park, has reworded its policy as of last Thursday, adding qualifying measures concerning bankruptcy and eviction. The updated policy, available on the rental agency’s website, states that prospective tenants “cannot have an active bankruptcy (can override if discharged for two years), judgment, active eviction (although this can be overridden with proof of resolution), foreclosure, history of late rent payments or short sale.” Wednesday Journal has reached out to Oak Park Apartments for comment. 

The changes, however, make no difference, according to Kate Walz, associate director of litigation with the National Housing Law Project, which is representing HOPE alongside the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Illinois. 

“We don’t think it changes the case at all or the impact that the policy — that they only changed after we filed — had on Black renters and Black women who rent,” said Walz, an Oak Park resident herself.

Walz said prospective renters could still be deterred from applying for housing through Oak Park Apartments after seeing the updated language because it lacks clarity. The current change also does not address previous harm done by the original policy, Walz said.

As the complaint notes, no-evictions policies are common across the United States — and in Oak Park too. Another local housing rental agency that has such a policy is the Oak Park Residence Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization whose mission is promoting Oak Park as a diverse and economically balanced community.

ResCorp’s policy, which is available on its website, states that an application will be denied if a prospective tenant does not meet “any or all of the following: bankruptcies (bankruptcy must be discharged 3 years ago), any collections above $500.00 except medical bills (no collections over the last 3 years), no excessive credit owed, any evictions or money owed to a current or past landlord.” 

Wednesday Journal has reached out to Oak Park Residence Corporation for comment.

ResCorp is a partner agency of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, a nonprofit which helps connect people to rental agencies while promoting diversity. The Housing Center does not have any policies regarding eviction, instead following the guidelines established by the Fair Housing Act.

“We don’t have any policies that we install and then push on our property owners,” said Athena Williams, OPRHC executive director.

The Housing Center occasionally sends clients to Oak Park Apartments, although it is not historically one of its partner agencies, according to Williams, who added that she sits on some committees with Bill Planek, the owner of Oak Park Apartments. 

In light of the complaint and national conversations currently taking place about evictions, Williams said she plans to do more research on the topic and increase community education efforts.

“As an agency serving this community, I really need to sit down and look closely at eviction laws and discrimination around eviction, and probably at this point step up and provide more education to the Oak Park community around not just fair housing, but around anything that’s more discriminatory when it comes to renting, evictions or not giving people fair opportunities to apply,” said Williams.

The 19-page complaint against Oak Park Apartments cites several studies and reports that all indicate how a history of eviction can diminish an individual’s housing opportunities, despite whether that individual’s circumstances have changed in the time since being evicted. Such circumstances could include having a higher paying job or more secure employment.

Routinely being rejected on the basis of a previous eviction can lead to homelessness, according to the complaint, which also states that the screening services used by rental agencies to pull eviction records do not distinguish between eviction filings and actual eviction orders. And the services are pulling and sharing sealed records.

“These are court records that a court has sealed, and landlords are still getting access to those records and denying people on the basis of that,” Walz said.

Landlords submit eviction filings for reasons beyond just the failure to pay rent, according to the complaint. Survivors of domestic violence have been evicted due to property damage caused by their abusers. Others have been evicted for rejecting sexual advances and propositions made by landlords. 

And since the COVID-19-era eviction moratorium has expired, eviction filings have returned to pre-pandemic levels with about 29,000 eviction filings submitted by Cook County landlords in 2022, WBEZ reported in June. 

The goal of the complaint, according to Walz, is widespread change. Instead of automatically denying applicants for having a previous eviction in their rental history, landlords can make an individualized assessment based on conversations with the applicant and eviction records.

“The ideal outcome is not just that Oak Park Apartments changes its policy, but all landlords change their policies,” she said.

HOPE Fair Housing and Oak Park Apts. have history

The no-evictions policy civil rights complaint is not the first to be filed by HOPE Fair Housing against Oak Park Apartments. It’s just the most recent.

The fair housing nonprofit previously filed a complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the property owner, alleging the agency discriminated against deaf and hard-of-hearing housing applicants by hanging up on them.

 The complaint was withdrawn later that year after it was determined that the dropped calls were not due to a discriminatory policy but were the result of a technical issue with the firm’s phone system. 

The calls of deaf and hard-of-hearing applicants were being disconnected due to a glitch in software, which the phone system used to convert text messages to voice messages that were then spoken aloud to the receiver of the call. A delay in translation was misinterpreted as a dropped call, according to Anne Houghtaling, then executive director of HOPE.

The glitch was subsequently corrected, prompting HOPE to drop the complaint.

Stacey Sheridan

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