As we embark on the 40th anniversary of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, it seems a good time for a little introspection. The Housing Center reflects with the founder, Bobbie Raymond, and the the longest-serving staffperson, Louise Varnes, and finds that the village of Oak Park is a vastly different community than when the Housing Center first opened its doors in the 1970s.
Instead of change happening to us, we came together to shape the future of our community.
It was the dawn of the 1970s, a time when children played until the street lights came on, and families left their doors unlocked. Richard Nixon was not a crook, people still looked to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, and racial tension replaced innocence in suburban America. The vast majority of the housing market was closed off to Black residents, channeling them to suburbs adjacent to Black neighborhoods in Chicago. The influx of Black residents migrating to the inner ring suburbs spurred a boom of White flight in these suburban communities.
At this time, Oak Park was a predominantly White and Protestant community with less than a dozen Black families. With Oak Park’s proximity to the Austin neighborhood, Oak Park residents could foresee “White Flight” or discriminatory practices, like redlining, that would inevitably be enacted to help sustain Oak Park as a White suburb. A passionate and charismatic Roberta Raymond, along with other pioneering residents, recognized the flaws and inequities of a system that allowed such prejudicial practices. They put forth authentic efforts to prevent these patterns in Oak Park by fostering a diverse landscape for the community.
The idea for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center grew from Raymond’s master’s thesis. She developed the Housing Center concept to encourage all racial groups to disperse throughout Oak Park and to discourage the clustering of races, so that the suburb would not become completely re-segregated. In a time when the housing market was closed off to Black residents, Oak Park sent the message of “Welcome.” The Housing Center continues to market the community to all races to ensure that no one is steered to one area based on their race.
Despite the amazing amenities Oak Park residents experience today, there were numerous people in and outside of Oak Park who were not in favor of the Housing Center model. Most residents, realtors, and researchers thought that a non-profit working to create and sustain integration would falter and that Oak Park would segregate into an all-Black community, regardless of the Housing Center’s efforts. It was thought integration would not be possible.
The Housing Center was not only the new kid on the block; it was more like the only kid on the block. This league of ambitious individuals was promoting a concept that had never been put into practice before. Raymond worked tirelessly to get the business community, residents, and realtors on board with the diversity vision. Thankfully, she connected with a solid group of residents and businesses invested in Oak Park and willing to support an innovative project to transform their community. In early 1972, about twenty community leaders met in Raymond’s living room on Grove Street to strategize how they would implement this housing action center for Oak Park. In the absence of a large budget, the reverend of First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park) suggested space in his church.
“There was a lot of media coverage before we opened because a lot of people were skeptical,” Raymond recalls. Despite the doubts that many locals had about a housing center organization, after thorough deliberation, the board of directors of the church voted unanimously to allow the new organization to use space in their building.
The Housing Center launched in the spring of 1972 with a staff of twenty. When the doors opened May 1, a line of eager clients were waiting outside, anxious to move to Oak Park. The Housing Center advertised in national magazines in the classified section, and marketed to the medical districts and universities in the region. The local media coverage also informed the region of the Housing Center’s presence.
“We started the Housing Center in a Sunday School classroom with a typewriter and phone,” says Raymond.
Louise Varnes, the longest-serving staff person at the Housing Center adds, “Everything took place in the same room – giving listings, meeting with landlords, taking complaints, and writing grants. Since we didn’t have offices, we all counseled clients at a large table in the middle of the room.”
Back then, apartment listings were handwritten on yellow cards and catalogued in a flipbook. It is remarkable that the Housing Center was run entirely by a staff of volunteers.
“We were mostly women, working part-time while the kids were in school,” explains Varnes. She started as a volunteer at the Housing Center in 1973, working one day a week. She eventually became one of the first full-time staff members of the organization.
“In the first year, we ran on a shoestring budget of about $12,000,” says Raymond. Most of the budget was spent on advertisements and the phone bill since they did not pay rent to the church. “I used my background as a writer and my love for art to design the first brochure for the Housing Center, which was also the first printed material promoting Oak Park as a community. We named the brochure ‘Oak Park: The People Place.'”
It was never about just housing. We were always involved in education and dealing with the full picture of diversity.
The Housing Center not only gave rental referrals, but also recommended realtors for homeownership.
“Only about 12 realtors agreed to take our clients. The rest believed that people coming to live in Oak Park didn’t want to live on an integrated block with Black and White neighbors,” Raymond explains.
Even in the beginnings of the agency, it was a popular place to find a home. Not only did the Housing Center find people homes, but it successfully helped minorities feel comfortable living in Oak Park.
In addition to the Housing Center’s hard work, key partners helped sustain racial integration in Oak Park. The Village of Oak Park has enacted meaningful policies supporting the efforts of the Housing Center, including an Oak Park Diversity Statement, Fair Housing Ordinance, and Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Report, and the ban on “For Sale” signs on residential properties. Realtors promoted all of Oak Park to prospective homeowners, and landlords welcomed residents of all races into their quality dwellings.
So what is the future of the Housing Center? For starters, we plan to be here for 40 more years, building and inspiring similar agencies that stretch throughout the entire nation. Sustaining diversity in any community requires consistent effort, so, as long as there is an Oak Park, there must be a Housing Center. People will continue to move in and out of communities. Oak Park needs the Housing Center to continue marketing all areas of the community, and prevent steering of prospective residents. According to Raymond, “We are still a long way from where we could be in Oak Park—and in all of society.”
The Housing Center envisions other communities near and far utilizing their model of integration. They recognize the numerous benefits of an integrated community, and it is their hope that all citizens have equal access to opportunity and can participate in a diverse society.
Further, the Housing Center strives to educate the youth of Oak Park about diversity in Oak Park and the importance of integration through a high school alliance, volunteering, and community projects. Many young people grow up in our community, experiencing the daily benefits of integration, but have no idea about the hard work it took to create this environment or that we are still working every day to sustain this culturally inclusive community.
The Housing Center is thankful for all residents who choose to live in Oak Park. Housing is connected to every part of society. Every day that you build relationships with neighbors and live in Oak Park, you are promoting social justice and making the community a nationally recognized fair housing model. The Housing Center is proud to welcome people from all backgrounds, enabling residents to celebrate the different cultures that shape our rich history and broaden our worldviews.
By Morgan P Davis