Changing Perceptions with Reality: The Housing Center and the “Oak Park Strategy”

Abbey Road kids horizontalBy Rob Breymaier, executive director, Oak Park Regional Housing Center

In 1972, when the Oak Park Regional Housing Center began, experts and academics were convinced that Oak Park’s strategy to promote and create an integrated community was doomed to fail. There simply had not been another place in America that could withstand the forces of segregation. Nearby, Chicago’s west side changed rapidly from predominantly white to predominantly black in the 1960s. Suburbs across the region were engaging in hostility toward African Americans considering a move out of Chicago. It seemed just about impossible that Oak Park would be able to beat these odds.

Over the next two decades, Oak Park’s population changed and more closely reflected the region around it. Diversity broadened to include African Americans and other people of color. Yet, at the same time, unlike other suburbs seeing the same changes, whites in Oak Park did not engage in flight behavior. They remained in the community and embraced the changing diversity. The experts began to admit they were wrong about the Oak Park Strategy. Oak Park had clearly found a method to embrace diversity in a way that was beneficial and desirable for people of all races.

The method was rooted in the creation of the Housing Center and support from Village Hall for the Housing Center and cooperating landlords. Through the Housing Center, a proactive strategy met apartment seekers and prospective homebuyers within their housing search. This meant that, through conversation and facts, the staff of the Housing Center could talk with prospective residents about all the living options in Oak Park. The process encouraged people to consider buildings or neighborhoods that they would never have entertained on their own.

This process is still necessary and is still working for our community. As it turns out, when it comes to housing choice, race and perception still hold a lot of sway over where people look for a new home. Well over half of the 4,000 households who use our service every year have preconceived notions of what part of Oak Park they think they “should” live in. In many of these cases, the client has never been to Oak Park. They only know what they have read on the internet or heard from others who lived here before them.

When people begin their search at the Housing Center, they begin to challenge these assumptions. Our staff is trained and dedicated to explaining the value of each part of our community. They can respond to concerns with facts and experience about living in every part of Oak Park. They can change perceptions and expand the options housing seekers are willing to consider. And it is in these interactions that people begin to understand the difference between perceptions and reality.

The result is not only a diverse community, but an integrated one. That integration is not to be taken for granted. We know from local data and research across the country that without an explicit effort to promote integration, segregation will prevail. We know that people who move to Oak Park using the Housing Center integrate the community about 70% of the time. Yet people who move to Oak Park without us integrate only about 25% of the time. Integration requires effort in a society that reinforces segregation.

The effort required to sustain our integration pays dividends though. Our integration ensures that housing in every part of the community attracts demand from people of every racial background. This ensures wealth generation through improvements in property values. And the overall prosperity in this integrated community allows us to provide excellent public schools and public services, and engage in critical programs to help our most vulnerable neighbors. In short, integration is the backbone of our community.

Today, the Housing Center continues to be the core of the Oak Park Strategy. Our efforts continue to be necessary as people seek out our vibrancy and diversity but remain hesitant to consider the whole community. That is, until they walk through our door and learn about the true value of community.