On 10 Years Promoting Integration and Opportunity

By Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center

I was reminded by colleagues that Monday marks my 10th anniversary as executive director of the Housing Center. On Monday, June 12, 2006, I ended up landing my dream job. I got to work at a unique organization that focused on building and sustaining not just diversity, but integration and equitable structures.

I quickly found out how difficult it is, and how rewarding it would prove. I observed our staff help people find rental apartments. At one moment, our clients were sure they could never consider certain moves. Later, through the incredible work of our staff, the same clients would be thanking us for helping them choose an apartment they loved and never would have considered without our help.

I also got to see how much we made a difference for the landlords in the community. Many of them explained to me how they relied on the Housing Center to help them improve their buildings and attract the diversity that allowed them to promote integration.

Some community leaders sought me out, wondering about an outsider running the Housing Center. (We moved to Oak Park within the year.) They wanted to know how committed I was to integration, what I knew about the history of Oak Park. I sought out others and quickly found that too many people were unaware that Oak Park’s integration was still fragile, at risk, and dependent on the Housing Center’s efforts.

It’s been 10 years of fascinating discussions and hard work, with lots of wonderful supporters and a few critics along the way. It’s been amazing, but I have also noticed a creeping increase in complacency as our continued success lulls us into forgetting that this community is an anomaly and our integration requires hard work.

During those past 10 years, Oak Park became more representative of the diversity of our region. Our integration improved. (Our dissimilarity score lowered from 35 to 31. For comparison, Evanston’s score is 64 and Chicago’s is 84). Our work to sustain and improve diversity and integration in the housing market has gone well and been of great value to Oak Park.

Meanwhile, we changed federal policy at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to stop redlining during the foreclosure crisis. We influenced county and state government to focus more on integration in the region that surrounds us.

Here are some of our direct service highlights.

In the last 10 years:

  • We have helped 9,354 households find a place to rent in Oak Park.
  • More than 65% of them made integrated moves that sustain our economic prosperity and social values. (Moves to Oak Park without our involvement integrate less than 25% of the time.)

In the past 6 years:

  • We’ve expanded to the suburbs surrounding us to help revitalize the communities with our West Cook Homeownership Center.
  • We’ve helped more than 2,500 first-time home buyers and over 1,000 homeowners facing foreclosure.
  • We’ve helped nearly 200 new low and moderate-income families buy a home.

In the past 2 years:

  • We expanded into Austin to empower local residents to reinvest in the community.
  • We helped more than 50 small landlords improve their rental management.
  • We provided $116,000 for the rehab of nearly 30 rental units in Austin.

I am grateful to be able to work at an organization that is making such a positive impact in the community I call home and providing an example of what is possible for the entire nation. It’s been a wonderful 10 years and I’m looking forward to many more.

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