The Housing Center was founded in 1972 as a grassroots effort by community activists. At the time, Oak Park was 99 percent white and surrounded by communities that were mono-racial or undergoing rapid and destabilizing racial changes. Unlike the majority of communities in the region and nation, Oak Parkers chose to embrace diversity and began to build a community in which everyone was welcome and valued. That effort, centered on the Housing Center, continues to this day and has created the most successful community integration program in the nation.
The story of Oak Park’s move toward integration began 22 years earlier when Percy Julian moved to Oak Park. Julian was a brilliant chemist with many patents and a successful company. In 1950, he purchased a large home in Oak Park and joined the small population of African American homeowners in the community. At the time, there was resistance to a Black homeowner moving into the community. Among other delays and indignities, it took some time before the Village would turn on the water to his home.
Shortly after moving in, an attempt to firebomb his home occurred. Fortunately, the attempt failed and no physical damage resulted. However, it still served as a traumatic event and the community as a whole was shocked and concerned.
In response, a group of over 300 Oak Parkers held a rally on the Julians’ lawn to defend his right to live in the community. It was an important moment in the transformation of the community from an exclusive community that former resident Ernest Hemmingway once described as a community of board lawns and narrow minds.
Progress moved slowly until the late 1960s when residents engaged in the civil rights movement. This activism resulted in the Village of Oak Park passing a fair housing ordinance in 1968, in parallel with the federal Fair Housing Act. It also began the effort to create the Housing Center.
The genius of the Housing Center model is that it is intentional and proactive. From the very beginning, the strategy was to work with people during their search for housing to expand the options available to them and promote “Affirmative Moves. ” Affirmative Moves occur when a person moves to a building where their race is under-represented. Typically, less than 20% of moves improve integration. But, the Housing Center’s interventions increased this rate to between 65% and 80%. It transformed the search process from segregative force to integrative.
The influence of the Housing Center has had a tremendous impact on the community. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Village of Oak Park and other government bodies increased their collaboration with and support for the Housing Center. It resulted in an array of programs that became known as the Oak Park Strategy. It included financial support for the Housing Center, incentives to landlords who worked with the Housing Center, and community relations programming. It also included physical changes. Village Hall was moved from the west side to the east side of Oak Park. The elementary school system redrew boundaries and engaged in integration efforts. Realtors and landlords increasingly got involved in fair housing and integration efforts. Integration of business ownership was pursued and supported.
Perhaps most importantly, the community underwent a cultural transformation. The Oak Park of today is well known for its diversity and inclusion. It attracts people who are searching for a community that reflects values of fairness and acceptance. This culture and reputation has become a competitive advantage for Oak Park. The community is a vibrant center for the arts. It has an array of boutiques, restaurants, and shops. And, it has a strong housing market where property values provide economic stability in the community. All of this is due to Oak Park being an attractive destination for people of all racial backgrounds searching for a place to make a home, raise a family, and pursue their dreams.