Mission: meaningful and lasting racial diversity

Opinion: Columns

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Rob Breymaier

Last week, John Murtagh [Is segregation in Oak Park's future? Viewpoints, Oct. 24] responded to my recent piece regarding integration in Oak Park's housing market [Here's to the next 40 years, Viewpoints, Oct. 17]. He missed the point of my assertion by confusing structural forces with individual actions.

It is a common conflation because Americans rarely talk about structures. We are a society based on individualism and we tend to focus on personal actions. But, as my mentor, John Lukehart, used to say, "We have to address the structures because it's the structures that do the dirty work."

In this case, the issue regarding segregation is not whether current Oak Parkers would take flight. It is about where newcomers to Oak Park will move within the community. To deal with that, we need a structure to promote integration and overcome a regional paradigm of segregation. The Housing Center is at the heart of that structure.

My assertion is not just speculation. It is based on empirical data and social science research. Every year, the Housing Center serves over 3,000 households looking for apartments in Oak. The pattern we have observed over the past 40 years has remained the same. Clients come to see us with preconceptions of where it is best for them to live in Oak Park. The primary basis for these preconceptions is their perceptions of the racial makeup of neighborhoods in Oak Park and the communities that border Oak Park.

I wish I could tell you that people have grown more interested in moving in ways that promote integration, but they have not. We must have proactive intentional effort to address and combat misperceptions in order to generate a pattern of integration. The Housing Center provides the necessary intentional effort.

Promoting integration is something the Housing Center can do that the private sector cannot. When clients use our service, we have the ability to inform them of apartments they may not have considered otherwise. In this process, we can encourage clients to consider apartments that would sustain or improve integration within the community.

We are successful in this effort 75 percent of the time. When clients call owners directly, owners rightly try to rent the apartments clients call about. Private owners are not in the business to turn down prospective renters and suggest looking elsewhere to promote integration. That would be an unreasonable demand. Predictably, moves made in this direct manner fail to promote integration over half the time. We should not fool ourselves into believing that we can rely on the private market to function as a structure for integration. Business is their purpose. Meaningful and lasting racial diversity is the Housing Center's mission.

Other communities once had diversity programs similar to ours. Most ended or scaled back their programs, resulting in losses of diversity. In most cases, rapid change took place. In others, attempts to increase minority representation failed. And in others they failed to integrate a diverse population. None of them recognized that housing is dynamic and efforts must continue.

We cannot make the same mistake. We need the structure the Housing Center provides to ensure a diverse and integrated future.

Rob Breymaier is executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (www.oprhc.org).

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Reader Comments

41 Comments - Add Your Comment

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LeAnna from Oak Park  

Posted: November 20th, 2012 8:01 PM

I am truly surprised at this! Has anyone noticed that besides African Americans and whites, there are Latinos, East Asians, Chinese, and other cultures living in Oak Park. Diversity means variety!

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 12th, 2012 12:13 AM

Enuf, I was the chair of the Community Relations Commission(CRC) a few years ago. In my time as the chair and as a member, I never saw or heard any reference to the Community Relations Dept. being responsible for maintaining a list of open apartment. I suspect that the responsibility was turned over to the Housing Center or the Housing Department, though I found no public record of Housing Center agendas or minutes that would confirm that they have taken the vacancy list responsibility. For that matter, I do not think the Housing Center releases agendas/minutes to the public. A review of the Housing Commission minutes shows no reference to the list. The CRC was powerful in the 20th Century. Not only were they involved in identifying available apartments, they were authorized to hold hearings on discrimination issues, and many policy issues. In the 21st Century, the Community Relations Commission role was changed and it now serves as a minor advisory role, and spends most of its time on community events. Why is this important? Many of those that were around in the 70's and 80's remember that the CRC as the organization guiding housing and diversity policies and issues, and still see it as a major component in housing administration. In fact, it does not.

OPRF Parent  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:53 PM

The housing center's tireless efforts to create some ideal black-white ratio are an anachronism. And, being neither black nor white, I'm not interested in funding these efforts.

Former Renter  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:38 PM

Sounds like a grant writer using words like 'conflation' to justify his existence. I used the Housing Center a few times and humored their Austin Ave listings. The one time I rented thru them in an ill-managed OP Res Corp bldg was a disaster.

heartoakpark from oak park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:03 PM

As residents I hope we can continue to celebrate one another and support organizations, including the housing center, which works tirelessly to make Oak Park, Oak Park.

heartoakpark from oak park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:02 PM

It is not a lack of faith in Oak Parkers, rather awareness of our successful integration model and because we value human rights we will stop at nothing to uphold our inclusionary principles.

heartoakpark from oak park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:01 PM

Although we are a community made up of mostly conscious and accepting individuals, the housing center is the key to informing new residents of our diversity statement and to remind us of the discriminatory realities of society.

heartoakpark from oak park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 4:01 PM

Thanks to my upbringing in Oak Park, my worldview is accepting of others and I celebrate different cultures. It breaks my heart that members of our community slander an organization helping to shape the amazing social landscape of Oak Park.

OPRF Parent  

Posted: November 7th, 2012 11:42 AM

The heart of the matter is, is it so important to create racially diverse neighborhoods that we need to try to force it with taxpayer money. Ironically, Chicago is celebrated for its ethnic communities. Maybe we could expand our village's efforts beyond Austin, and stamp out Greektown or Devon Street. Then, on to Chinatown and Little Italy. I truly just don't get this place, but then I'm not from here.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 2:58 PM

To Call me, maybe: OPHC is a rental agency focused on rental apartments. A little research will show very few rental options in the Mann School area. Nothing sinister about it, just the way the village evolved over the past 125 years. To achieve balance, OPHC would most certainly direct people of color to the Mann area...there just simply aren't the options available there. It is virtually all single family housing.

Call me, maybe?  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 1:39 PM

Given the demographics of Mann School, are people of color with children being directed to the Mann School area? Seems like that area could use a healthy dose of diversity (unless the OPHC's monetary patrons do not want that to happen), rather than merely directing whites to Austin.


Posted: November 6th, 2012 9:02 AM

@Freespirit, glad you found a safe place, when we told them what part of Oak Park we thought fit our needs we were told it was "all condos" and that there was no way we could get a rental listing there. Luckily we found several that weekend. @Enuf you are right it is social engineering that is why we felt like an experiment and were made very uncomfortable.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 8:38 AM

Part 1: The OPRHC is a rental referral agency, with the purpose to maintain a "racial" balance. The village's Community Relations department maintains records of tenants in apt. bldgs. and determines whether they are open listings (available to all prospective renters), or locations where white demand should be encouraged. This information is then conveyed to OPRHC so that they can determine which clients are given which listings.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: November 6th, 2012 8:38 AM

Part 2: Some critics would call this policy, social engineering or even benign "racial" steering. The philosophy of the Center and of all agencies in Oak Park devoted to maintaining diversity is to maintain a "racial" balance. They believe their policies will prevent the resegregation of Oak Park. (source: Housing Center Film, Jay Ruby, 2006 draft, http://astro.temple.edu/~ruby/opp/center/film.html). Is not limited disclosure of apt. listings a discriminatory practice?


Posted: November 5th, 2012 9:29 PM

@Foom, I too was very disgusted with the Housing Center. Yrs. ago, I had 2 small children, no car and I did NOT want to live anywhere near Austin Blvd and Jackson. EVERYTIME I called for listings, they would give me listings on Austin. I kindly told them I prefered to live West of Ridgeland and South of Madison. They wouldn't have it. I finally stopped calling and found a wonderful apt. that's safe, clean and quiet. All I can say is 'good riddance' to the OPHC~

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 5:24 PM

40 Years Ago and 40 Years from Now - The exchange with Rob Breymeier cites the changes that have occurred in OP since the Oak Park Housing Center was created in 1972 and begins a discussion of what OP will be like in 2042. In the 50's if we said geez, hell, or damn in the house we were slapped or had Holy Water splashed on us. By 1972, the use of common curse word spread to uncommon places. No longer did you hear them just in bars, on the street, or at construction sites. It was absolute death if you said them in the home, but we could say geez, hell, or damn. In 2012, forty years after the Housing Center was founded, the really nasty words of 1972 are so common that the only place you won't hear them is in church (maybe). 2012 has a whole new set of curse words exist. We don't even blush over those. Most of us don't even know that they are offensive. My point is not ruled by a clock or calendar. It just happens and then it changes again. That leads to my major argument with many OP'ers who believe that the village is not that different than 1972. Fact is virtually everything in our little world has changed in the last forty years and will change again in the next forty.

to Done  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 5:16 PM

Don't go to the baseball fields or the hockey rink, you might hear plenty of bad words from white teenagers too. Then what will you do? Done with society?

Local Guy  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 4:46 PM

You better not hang around construction sites, either. There are a lot of foul-mouthed white folks in some of those groups! Or try the public golf course on a Saturday afternoon after the groups have had a few beers. I wouldn't equate failures of diversity with a few misbehaving members of any certain group. And I do agree that the language you heard was inappropriate anywhere.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 4:34 PM

After spending 15 minutes yesterday afternoon at Longfellow School Park with my seven-year-old listening to a dozen or so AA teenagers calling each other n%*$@&, m^!)%$f*$@(@, and b*%#$, among other niceties, and after being laughed at when I asked them to please watch their language, I am done with diversity.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 3:24 PM

OPRF Parent - I agree with your thinking 100%. I grew up in an Irish Family in an Irish Neighborhood and new little about race growing up. After adding two generations to the family, I find that my family tree is diverse. Our last names are as likely to be Rodriquez or Ramirez and it is O'Neill or McNamara. Our entire family has changed its attitude on race differences. All that changed was names not the quality of the people.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 3:19 PM

OPRF Dad - There are a lot of people in Oak Park that do not considering the management of housing as meddling. They can be categorized in four group. The Idealogues who see the housing issue as part of the fight against poverty, the Status Quo'ers, who believe no change is the best change, the Compromisers who fear OP's re-segregation into a minority community, and the Iconist who see believe that OP is uniqueness is because of its housing initiatives There is no organized opposition. There are residents that question the need for complex, bureaucratic, institutions to manage housing, question the cost of staffing, subsidies, etc., challenge the independence and secrecy of the housing institutions, and question their lack of a specific Oak Park housing vision. The big difference between the two views is culture. Culture can only changed by time, confrontation or conversation. The time issue is clear. We live in a different time. A time that is not challenged by emotional fears of the 60's and its urgency, but a time that makes financial issues are paramount and we face decades of change in the demographics of OP. Confrontation is worthless. The most complex issue in OP government is housing. Only people bordering on mystics understand its complexity. If there is to be a discussion about OP Housing, it will be a board issue. Ultimately, they are the body with the responsibility.

OPRF Parent  

Posted: November 5th, 2012 10:41 AM

I am Caucasian enough that most people assume be to be Caucasian. I have family members, however, who clearly are not Caucasian. Some of them choose to live in neighborhoods and communities where they are surrounded by other people who share our ethnicity. There are many such neighborhoods, reflecting many races and ethnicities, in every large city in the world. Some informed adults choose an integrated community; some don't. How is that the business of the government?


Posted: November 5th, 2012 9:05 AM

JBM, who is in favor of this meddling? It seems like a small cabal of lunatics set politics in OP, not just on this issue, but on many others. Most people I know and speak to in OP are reasonable, left-leaning centrists who aren't necessarily in favor of abusive taxes or a far left political agenda. Yet, OP doesn't reflect those values. So, what gives? And, how do we change the system to eliminate this type of power grab? I think a referendum on a number of these issues is a start.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 11:49 PM

OPRFDad - Wow, you have a lot of patience. The oldest "Boomers" have just passed 65 years of age and the youngest are in their 40's. Boomers will be around for a long long time. The administration of OP housing needs to be discussed and reviewed now. My biggest concern is that the secret micromanagement of housing has the same potential as TIF's. That is; a village committing itself for decades to programs that have grow slowly and frequently never blossom. The Grove Apartments was financed by HUD and will be administered by the state of Illinois for 40 years. All OP gains from that is any problems that surface and the bills for providing services. Without any plan The OP Housing Center is celebrating their next 40 years of service to the village without a glimmer or plan for what OP will be in 2042. Are our housing financial risks as significant as our TIF risk? We just don't know. As residents we have even less info on the Housing Institutions cost/values than we had on TIFs. If the village is committed to fiscal responsibility, a first step is to ensure every expenditure, every plan, and every perpetual program has an ROI and a Risk/Reward analysis.


Posted: November 4th, 2012 9:49 PM

OP Parent, that would be the rational approach, wouldn't it? Let people live where they want. But, sadly, OP is about 40 years behind the times and obsessing about things that most modern minded people don't care about and don't want government meddling in. If you are under 50 and new, OP will likely strike you as insane and Orwellian. Not to worry. Once we flush the boomers, we can focus on legit problems.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 4:41 PM

At issue is social control, and who decides the desired racial balance in OP, for what purpose, and by what means. To most blacks, an integrated community may be approx. 50% black, but most whites consider an integrated community to have a majority of at least 70% whites. Anything less than a 70% majority may incur a tipping point toward segregation and white flight. Is the goal of the OP Regional Housing Center based upon a prescribed racial balance and/or racial quota?

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2012 4:40 PM

The use of the term "proactive intentional effort" by Mr. Breymaier raises the question whether the goals and actions of the OP Regional Housing Center comply with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. A policy of intentional racial balance may be construed as a form of social steering, or housing discrimination, that involves steering certain people into certain areas of the village based upon their race. How is this not a discriminatory policy?

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 1:29 PM

OPRF Parent - your post identifies on side of the housing discussion. The other side of the discussion believes that to maintain or attain the desirable level of integration, that village housing and residents or potential residents require constant screening to ensure that the proper racial balance exists. Hence; the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. The issue in the middle is, who is Correct? That can only be determined by a detailed review of the last forty years of the housing center and a vision for the center's next forty years. Welcome to OP.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 1:23 PM

OP Village Clerk Powell suggested in a post that the 2010 Federal Census could be a good source of OP information on racial composition by neighborhood. In fact there is a better source - The Village of Oak Park. While doing the study RECONSIDERING THE OAK PARK STRATEGY: THE CONUNDRUMS OF INTEGRATION the authors needed more detailed data than the census. They were able to get more detail through a Freedom of Information Act request. Below is a description from their report on the information they received. "Census data offer one way to do this. However, the Village of Oak Park's data base, obtained from the data provided in business license applications, is in some ways a better measure of the success of their policies, because it is tabulated for apartment buildings only, excluding condominiums and other forms of multifamily housing, and because it can be presented in linear block form.

OPRF Parent  

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 11:53 AM

I'm a fairly recent arrival to OP, so I find this a little bewildering. Couldn't we just let adults choose where to live, and allow them to associate with whomever they like? Do we really need an agency to track where people live, based on their race, and guide newcomers to specific housing in order to maintain some artificial level of appropriate integration (see Foom below.) Can't we choose our own friends and neighbors without considering their race? Where's Dr. King when we need him?

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 3rd, 2012 12:25 AM

Re Rob Breymaier WJ Comments quote, "There are an array of institutions that play a role in the Oak Park Strategy but the Housing Center is at the heart of them." He is correct. OP has the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Oak Park Housing Authority, Oak Park Residence Corporation, Housing Program Advisory Committee, Housing Programs (village staff) and a wide range of partners, formal and informal, housing association affiliations. Rob would call this "structural". I might agree that it is structural if I understood the roles, goals, cost, interaction, and overlap of the institutions. In a independent report titled RECONSIDERING THE OAK PARK STRATEGY: THE CONUNDRUMS OF INTEGRATION (http://astro.temple.edu/~ruby/opp/3qrpt02/finalversion.pdf) written by Evan McKenzie (University of Illinois) and Jay Ruby (Temple University), they wrote "Because of the way in which the (OP Housing) "plan" developed, it has become difficult for any one person to adequately understand the "big picture. We believe that even some of the citizens involved in the governance of some of the agencies do not fully comprehend the complexity of the strategy." At a time when Oak Park long-term (five years out) financial outlook is not a pretty picture, it is not sufficient to perform cost/benefit analysis on the staff only. The OP partners deserve scrutiny as well, and that includes housing.


Posted: November 2nd, 2012 4:00 PM

CONT>>>> Every building shown to us we were told that it was a majority black area blah blah blah, we felt like a social experiment as he talked about how much we would like the "intergration". Needless to say we were very put off and found a rental elsewhere.


Posted: November 2nd, 2012 3:56 PM

@Joe, The housing center does tell you that its based on race. Last Year me and my Fiancee moved from Florida and had never been to Chicago before, I was told over the phone by my new work that Oak Park is a great place for young couples. We stayed in a hotel and found the OPRHC online and decided to go there to start our search for a rental. We didnt care about racial makeup of the neighborhood or even consider it until it started getting crammed down our throat by the agent.

Rob Breymaier from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 2:29 PM

1. There are many versions of dot density maps by race for the Chicago region online. You can zoom in on Oak Park to see the difference. Oak Park is not perfectly integrated but it is better integrated than other communities with a similar diversity. And, if you look at the stark differences along our borders you'll see why we need to continue to sustain what we have accomplished and hope to improve upon it. 2. We do inform our clients of our mission and discuss it with them. 3. Integration doesn't become static once you reach a certain point. You don't reach a stopping point in a racialized society. Maybe someday we will. But for the next 40 years the odds are integration will need to be sustained through an intentional effort. What our experience and research on racial preferences, implicit association, and personal knowledge show is that we need to remain active and intentional. Everyone begins their housing searches with assumptions that are informed by historical and current local and regional patterns. People are often unaware of the opportunities in communities and neighborhoods where their racial group is in the minority or where it is perceived to be in the minority. When they do have information, it is often racially coded and implicit associations skew where people feel comfortable pursuing housing. To continue to overcome that paradigm in Oak Park, we need to remain affirmative (or proactive if you will). There are an array of institutions that play a role in the Oak Park Strategy but the Housing Center is at the heart of them.

Teresa Powell  

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 11:58 AM

Demographic information from the 2010 census is available at American Factfinder at this link: http://censtats.census.gov/ I don't know if it's at the census tract level, but lots of interesting information.

D from OP  

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 6:27 AM

Mr B, seeing a map of OP by race (or any other demo) would actually be pretty interesting. Do you have one or know where one could be found? What would you expect to see? We moved to OP a year ago and bought based on the house and proximity to the train. Our block is all white but that consideration never entered our calculus, and I think that's a good thing personally.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2012 4:33 AM

Is the Oak Park Regional Housing Center notifying clients that the selections that they are offered are based on the race of the person seeking an apartment?


Posted: November 1st, 2012 8:04 PM

I say this not as a rebuttal, but simply a reinforcement of Mr. Breymaier's points; I don't think you can set a point to determine a social change has been reached instead I believe you need to do what's necessary to maintain that change.

Mr. B  

Posted: November 1st, 2012 8:01 PM

Put simply, if you look at a map of residency in Oak Park according to race, you'll see that Mr. Breymaier is correct and furthermore Mr. Butch i suggest you go inside OPRF High School and then please try and tell me that we're intergrated. On a macro-level perhaps we have gain integration but on a micro-level? Please. My mother worked for OP public works (before we moved next door to RF) and regularly received phone calls about how many blacks could live on a given block. Get real.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 1st, 2012 5:28 PM

Rob Breymaier - I have a lot of experience in "structure." For instance; I realize that forty years ago Oak Park formed a multi-organizational structure to create an integrated community." The "structure" worked. We do not live in a segregated community. The question that has been raised by many experts and residents of Oak Park is "Have we attained integration? The question is important. Seemingly if integration has been attained, the "structure" can be modified to meet other village needs that will arise in the next forty year. If the village has not attained integration, the old question arises, -- What is the village's integration goal? Your first letter clearly implied that integration has not been attained and that the successes of the first forty years are at risk - "If we (the Housing Center) were to cease operating, Oak Park would segregate within five years." That statement is dismal toward the state of the village, and clearly points to a need for a pragmatic review of the OP Regional Housing Center "structure."


Posted: October 31st, 2012 1:23 PM

...and we should remember to be wary of the Big Government/NGO Complex as it's all about the Benjamin$...it is no different than the Military/Industrial Complex, just a different set of people making a living off of tax dollars.

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