In real estate, the saying goes that location is everything, and that adage certainly holds true in Oak Park. People looking for homes to rent or buy often cite access to public transportation, schools, being north or south of the Eisenhower Expressway and neighborhood as important factors in their search. The perception of that last factor — neighborhood — is highly personal, but for many there are geographic requirements.
Ever since the 1960s when fears of white flight changed the housing outlook on Chicago's West Side and prompted changes in neighboring Oak Park's markets, there has been a not-so-subtle aversion to the Austin neighborhood and some trepidation about the eastern edge of Oak Park near Austin Boulevard.
But the east side of Oak Park, with its many vintage buildings, is nonetheless a vital part of Oak Park's rental community, and Mike Stewart, marketing director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, said the area should not be discounted, especially by renters.
The Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC) has been serving clients since 1972 and is uniquely positioned to offer an overview of the rental market in the village. The 501c3 nonprofit offers free services to those seeking and providing housing in the village. OPRHC offers free apartment referrals to renters and assistance to property owners and managers, as well as fair housing training and education and fair housing research and advocacy.
According to Stewart, the Housing Center serves 2,000 to 3,000 clients a year.
"Some live in Oak Park already and want to see what's out there," he said, "and others might live in the city. Our typical clientele is college or graduate students, young professionals or young families starting out."
Stewart said a lot of his job is marketing Oak Park to people who don't really know what it offers.
"Some people living in the city are not aware of what we have here," he said. "I told a guy who lived in the West Loop that we have one bedrooms from the high $800s up to roughly $1,000. He was shocked. He's paying $2,200 a month downtown. I can show people how big our units are, and what they can get for their money. Some people in the city are in their own little world and don't know about Oak Park, but they're drawn in when they hear about the lower rent."
For many looking at Oak Park for the first time, the access to transportation — both the CTA and the Eisenhower — is a big draw. The village's location is ideal for those commuting to the city or the western suburbs.
Stewart works with property managers to help them attract potential renters, as well as working with them on the details of property management.
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of new, first-time owners," he said. "They might not know a lot about the rental market here. I can sit with them and take them through the process."
Oak Park's housing stock is very diverse, and Stewart pointed out that the rental market is a large chunk of the overall housing market. The village is home to roughly 10,000 single family homes and 10,000 multi-family units. Stewart said the condo boom converted some of the rental market to condominiums in the past 10-15 years, but he estimates that 8,000 to 8,500 of the multi-family units in the village are rentals.
East Side units
Oak Park's east side is rich with well-kept vintage buildings that provide the old-school charm many seek in Oak Park with the added amenities of updated living spaces and easy access to transportation and schools. In spite of all there is to offer, Stewart noted the east side neighborhoods can be a tougher sell.
"The stereotype that these areas aren't as desirable hasn't gone away," he said. "It happens a lot. Someone will be so excited about a place and then backs out because of what someone else tells them about the neighborhood."
Stewart points to several buildings with units currently available as examples of what renters can find if they keep an open mind. A one-bedroom in a 1920s-era building on Pleasant Street, for instance, offers a vintage-tiled entry, fireplace, built-ins and separate living and dining room. Stewart advises his property managers against stripping the charm from older buildings.
"I recommend that owners keep the vintage elements that make the place, and Oak Park, unique," he said. "We still call it vintage, but people don't want 1920s bathrooms and kitchens, so those are areas the managers focus on keeping more modern."
Other buildings on Austin Boulevard offer the same vintage charm with brick bay windows and terra cotta exterior details. Stewart said they have worked hard to overcome the stigma associated with an Austin Boulevard address.
"If you want to give away one of our big secrets, we rename some of the buildings. For example, we might call a corner building 1 Ontario Court rather than using an Austin address. It's still on Austin, but there's that stigma, so sometimes it helps. One client didn't want to see anything on Austin, but when I showed her a unit in a building on Iowa and Austin, she loved it."
A stake in the outcomes
Stewart said OPRHC works to communicate what renters are looking for to the property managers to help make the units and buildings desirable. Many clients are used to the higher-end upgrades of condos, and want more amenities in their rental units.
"We share with property owners when people are looking for dishwashers or in-unit laundry," he said. "On top of that, we work to eliminate the stigma that Austin isn't safe. We encourage owners to put resident managers in their buildings. We can also contact people we've placed in the building, so a potential renter can talk to someone who lives there about any concerns they might have about parking or walking at night, and they can get honest answers."
In one building on Austin with units available for rent, Stewart pointed out the cheerful yellow laundry room with lots of windows, and the community patio that provides a quiet spot for residents to gather. Small touches like these help retain tenants.
Stewart, who has lived in the community since he was 6 months old and has worked with the Housing Center since he volunteered there in the 1990s, says he's seen a lot of changes in the community.
"Before demand was there," he noted, "property owners had to come up with creative ways to make units appeal to people, but today the demand is there. I've seen buildings from the really bad to the really good over the years, and there really is no good or bad side to Oak Park. A lot of our property owners are local and part of the community. They have a real stake in the outcomes of their buildings, and it shows in all of the neighborhoods."
Answer Book 2019
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