Michele Rodriguez Taylor said the results of years of work done by the Oak Park Regional Housing Center can be experienced everyday in the village.
“The diversity, I see, when I walk down Marion or Lake or Harrison [streets] it’s unlike any other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in,” Rodriguez Taylor said. “It’s not in transition; it’s not temporary. It’s something that we’ve worked hard to achieve; it’s something to be proud of.”
The Oak Park Regional Housing Center hosted its annual benefit last week at The Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park. This year’s fundraiser aimed to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which makes discrimination illegal in the sale, lease or rental of housing due to race, religion, sex, handicap, family status or nationality.
Rodriguez Taylor was among the featured speakers. She was joined by Tracey Wik, board president for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center; Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for Community Health Equity at Rush University Medical Center; Dr. Maria Krysan, professor and head of the department of sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago; and Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, policy advisor for the Cook County state’s attorney office.
Officials said the Oak Park Regional Housing Center has met with more than 1,700 people who are looking to live in Oak Park this year, to date.
Rodriguez touted the housing center’s expanded use of technology to help reach people at their level. Between email communication and Skype to FaceTime, officials said the Oak Park Regional Housing Center has assisted more than 400 people to find homes in town.
“Regardless of the technology, what we do hasn’t changed,” Rodriguez Taylor said. “We talk with people. We answer questions. We address their concerns about living East of Ridgeland [Avenue] or on Austin [Boulevard,] and we hear that daily. We help people expand their options and show them all of the wonderful places they can live here.”
Rodriguez Taylor said she feels the regional housing center has a way of creating a ripple of change to the Oak Park community.
“For every person who make an affirmative move, it not only impacts them, it impacts the views of their family and friends who go to visit them,” she said. “It changes people’s perspectives.”
This year, officials said the West Cook Homeowners Center, a program of the housing center, assisted 99 people to become homeowners, played a role in securing nearly $200,000 in downpayment assistance and helped prepared 532 people for homeownership.
“That was just with four staff,” Rodriguez Taylor said. “Imagine what we could do with more.”
Attendance at this year’s benefit was comprised, in part, of elected officials, village staff members and volunteers.
Awards were presented during the program to recognize Jim and Lynn McClure, the village of Oak Park, Ansell, Mattie Langenberg and Louise Varnes.
Krysan said it’s not enough to have people of different races and ethnicities living side by side.
“We need to still continue those efforts to preserve that diversity,” she said. “We can’t stop our programs that encourage renters to consider options they might not otherwise consider because those renters come to our doors, holding tightly onto what they’ve learned and experienced in this deeply, segregated-racist metropolitan area. To stop intentionally supporting these moves is to risk losing the diversity that we have maintained.”
Krysan is a board member for the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and is a co-author for a book titled, “Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification.”
Krysan hopes the village finds a way to address concerns for race and equity so prevalent in today’s world, much like it had 46 years ago, when the regional housing center was formed.
“I want to see Oak Park figure out how to be a leader and [be] ahead of its time on this issue,” she said. “That is to make sure Oak Park is not only just diverse, but also integrated and inclusive, so that racial background no longer shapes your experiences in Oak Park.”