The next frontier in Oak Park's half-century fight to promote and maintain racial integration throughout the village.
Multiple new high-rise luxury developments that have started to go up in town loomed over a July 19 panel discussion on integration, moderated by media veteran and Oak Park resident Charlie Meyerson, at the Oak Park Public Library.
Many panelists and audience members said the village has become less vigilant about guarding against racial re-segregation than it had been in the past, right when costly housing may pose a stubborn obstacle to many low-income, minority families as well as middle-class families and young professionals seeking to move into, or continue living in, Oak Park.
The concerns have prompted the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which hosted the discussion, to start soliciting public input in order to build a coalition dedicated to realizing "a more inclusive, equitable, and vibrant community," according to a handout circulated by the organization during last Thursday's discussion.
Rob Breymaier, the Housing Center's executive director who was on the three-person panel, said the village needs to be more deliberate about preventing racial and economic segregation in parts of Oak Park.
"A lot of us have never lived in an Oak Park that wasn't diverse or integrated, and we probably think that maybe it's just natural or that's just how it works, but it's not just natural," he said. "It takes a lot of work."
Breymaier, along with co-panelists Linda Francis, the director of Success of All Youth, and Maria Saldana, the executive director of the Oak Park Residence Corporation (RESCO), said that the new luxury developments could risk pricing minorities and low-income families out of the village.
"One of the things we haven't really talked about a lot is how we integrate across economic levels and that's a really important part of having a vibrant community," Francis said. "When you think about who can afford those rents, you're not only looking at a limited group of people in terms of race, but also in terms of profession and a wide array of perspectives."
Cheree Moore, a married African-American mother of three, said she's worried that she may be priced out of the place she's long called home. The Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate and member of the village's Community Relations Commission said her household income is too high to qualify for low-income housing subsidies, but not high enough to buy a house in the village.
"What is the village going to do for the young professionals," said Moore, 33. "We're going to be the people who will be [members of] the next boards, who will be running for office, who will be the next educators in this community and we can't afford to live here. I recently graduated with a master's in public administration, but unfortunately I'm not going to be able to stay in Oak Park to use it."
Saldana, whose agency manages multiple affordable and integrated residential buildings across Oak Park, said that the village also needs to consider an affordable housing plan that includes middle-income families.
Saldana said she was concerned that the towers — which include a mixed-use property at Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard, luxury condominiums at Lake Street and Euclid Avenue and a 271-unit residential high-rise at Lake Street and Forest Avenue — won't attract many minorities.
Starting rent for a studio apartment at Vantage Oak Park, the Lake and Forest development, is $1,527 a month.
Breymaier said the Housing Center, which aggressively markets residences in Oak Park in order to facilitate diversity and integration, has a partnership with the Vantage development to list those properties, but that more needs to be done.
"This is an example of where a more comprehensive strategy might be helpful," he said.
Eric Davis, an Oak Park Housing Authority commissioner, said that his agency is in the process of developing an affordable-housing policy for new developments in the village "so that developers have predictability and can understand what the community expects when they come and work here."
Many residents who spoke during the meeting's public comments portion expressed numerous frustrations with the village's current integration efforts. They mentioned the village no longer requires owners of rental buildings with six or fewer units to report the racial profile of their renter population and the village's current comprehensive plan as points of concern.
Breymaier, however, said that U.S. Census data, which now comes out annually instead of every 10 years, provides virtually the same information.
Daniel Lauber, a former village planner for Oak Park and the principal author of the village's 1979 comprehensive plan, said he would've preferred the village require that at least 15 percent of the high-rise units be affordable to households of modest incomes.
"Instead they're building high-rises where it'll cost $3,000 for an apartment, it's obscene," he said. "You might as well own if you're going to spend that much money."
Answer Book 2019
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