Oak Park needs the Housing Center

And the housing center needs to change

Opinion: Editorials

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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. 

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Reader Comments

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Corey Gimbel from Oak Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2019 5:51 AM

To continue : I don't think the need for their mission has expired. I sorta/kinda agree with this statement. But, and its a BIG but, their business model has expired it was viable 15 years ago but not any longer. In a Wednesday Journal editorial this week this comment is made: "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." That's an understatement. Radical change is required to allow the HC to evolve, perhaps, starting with dumping the entire Board of Directors starting with Tracey Wik and Fabiola Candlish. In the WJ article we are commenting on the writer claims that the HC has created an "AP" to allow them to conduct business digitally. The HC has no systems developers on staff. They are NOT in the business of creating "APS". So where is that "AP"? When will it be available? 3 years from now? At what price? Right now I believe that "AP" is a fantasy/fairytale. Meanwhile the HC's well funded online competition like Apartments.com, Rentals.com, Craigslist, etc are already out there being accessed by the HC's millennial clients that are doing business using their smartphones P.S. The work of Oak Park Residence Corporation has always been a vague and controversial, if not suspect organization, to taxpayers. The Oak Park Residence Corp. is not funded by the Village of Oak Park's taxpayers. There is NOTHING controversial about their work. They own and rent apartments to low income, elderly and disabled tenants. A very necessary and timely service run by SERIOUS CREDENTIALED PROFESSIONALS.

Corey Gimbel from Oak Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2019 5:48 AM

@ Christine Vernon: I would like to address 4 comments that you made. I am NOT attacking you. Usually, people show their respect and gratitude for help from the Housing Center by making a donation. By "people" I assume you mean property owners. The OPRHC suggests that a landlord/property owner make a contribution when the HC places an applicant in an apartment they own or manage. It is NOT required that they make this contribution merely suggested. Some do I'm sure. Considering that getting that same renter through a broker would cost a month's rent or more, that seems like a GREAT deal for the building owner. The HC center is not for profit 501c3 so they can't demand that a fee be paid. I wonder what the big real estate companies do when they rent apartments in all the apartment buildings that they own and manage. The big real estate companies have marketing departments dedicated to keeping their rental apartments filled. These people conduct continuous marketing campaigns to fill their buildings they are not depending upon the services of the HC. Someone suggested that the Village create an ordinance to require them to list their empty units with the HC. That's never going to happen for too many reasons to go into. (More to follow)

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 30th, 2019 6:38 AM

How is the Wednesday Journal tax deductible when they are printing opinion pieces like this? We have a guy living in Berwyn, to avoid Oak Park taxes, urging taxpayers here to fund a decrepit failure of an organization that he likes.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: October 29th, 2019 10:28 PM

Years ago, my husband and I used the services of the Oak Park Housing Center. We also used the service of a real estate company once to rent a property/apartment. Both were effective. The Housing Center was very organized, - having the help and guidance of Mike Stewart was excellent. They check the property to make sure it is up to certain standards for the protection of the renter. They screen the ability of the renter/tenant to pay. This service was done for free by them. Renting an apartment or home through a real estate company, they typically charge you one month's rent for finding a tenant for a one year lease, depending on the contract. That's not a free service. We are fortunate to have many reputable realtors available for residents where we live. Usually, people show their respect and gratitude for help from the Housing Center by making a donation. I wonder what the big real estate companies do when they rent apartments in all the apartment buildings that they own and manage. Many of those companies seem to have been using the services of the Housing Center for years for free. That would be informative to residents to know in realizing the effectiveness of the Housing Center. Their work always impressed me as an incredible goodwill mission for the Village and the safety of renters and owners. I don't think the need for their mission has expired. Many grateful people have used their services, and their services have a proven record and real monetary value. An update would be great in assessing this situation. Are they are still giving away their valuable service free? Maybe that's what is outdated, and who are their main clients these days. P.S. The work of Oak Park Residence Corporation has always been a vague and controversial, if not suspect organization, to taxpayers. On the one hand, it is good that Oak Park keep places to code since that is lacking in many communities, but shouldn't this be a function of a department at Village Hall?

Corey Gimbel from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2019 9:42 PM

Frankly I'm appalled that this opinion piece was published without reaching out to ALL the organizations mentioned in it. I'm beginning to understand that the rubber meeting the road these days at he Wednesday Journal is running without any tread left. The Wednesday Journal is Oak Park's paper we need you to be unbiased and truthful. Lately I question whether those qualities exist when it comes to the Oak Park Regional Housing Center's continued $400,000+ drain on taxpayer's $$$$. Darwinism sucks but sometimes a species must die and a new one arise. phoenix-like from the rotting corpse. No time like the present. The sang I'm listening to is: Lynyrd Skynyrd - That Smell - YouTube https://www.youtube.com ? watch

Corey Gimbel from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2019 9:34 PM

Here is the rest of David Pope's reply to me: We do, in fact, provide one contracted service for the Village of Oak Park ?" the Small Condominium Management Program. Through the Small Condo program we provide training, counseling, and operational support to small condominium associations, delivering temporary interventions to help them stabilize and then improve their operations and achieve self-sufficiency. The Small Condo contract with the Village covers only our marginal operating costs (without any overhead markup or margin built in) which come to roughly $42,500. In fact, though, because the program aligns with OPRC's mission regarding supporting the promotion of economic stability and opportunity throughout all of Oak Park's neighborhoods, we have also frequently subsidized the program out of OPRC operating monies over the years (which isn't overly problematic for us, as the overall cost of the entire program as a whole equates to well under 1% of our annual revenues). Ultimately, I think the Village would explain that they outsource the operations of this program (regardless of whether that would be to us or to someone else) because an outside third party with expertise in the area is able to deliver the services for materially less than what it would cost the Village if they were to restructure their own operations in an effort to deliver the services internally. I hope that this responds to your questions. If you have any additional follow-ups, feel free to reach back out to me. Kindest regards, David

Corey Gimbel from Oak Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2019 9:32 PM

I think you need to do your fact checking first and opinion publishing second. I emailed back and forth with David Pope CEO of the Oak Park Residence Corp, to get an explanation of what they do versus what the Oak Park regional Housing Center does and who funds them. I will append that email answer here. Hi Corey, Thanks for reaching out. You are correct that they are two completely different organizations, despite the somewhat similar names and very similar acronyms (and don't worry, you are not the only one who gets us confused). The Oak Park Regional Housing Center is a rental referral organization that helps to support the expansion of housing choices for people seeking housing here in Oak Park and throughout the region. They just named their new executive director, Athena Williams, at their benefit dinner last week. To get more information on them (and specifically on their budget and the amount that they receive in investment from the Village) you may want to reach out directly to her. Alternatively, we are the Oak Park Residence Corporation (OPRC). We are an independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit multi-family housing provider. We have been in existence for 52 years, owning and managing multifamily properties here in Oak Park, with a specific focus on providing high-quality multi-family apartments, encouraging economic integration through the provision of both affordable and market rate housing options within our buildings, and supporting the Village's goals of encouraging diversity throughout Oak Park by providing units of all types that are accessible to individuals of all backgrounds and incomes. You are also correct that we are financially self-supporting as an organization. It is not correct, however, that we receive no Village monies. I'll paste the rest of David's answers in another post to follow. He really took his time explaining things.

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