The view of downtown Chicago from the train platform in Oak Park, a suburb that borders the city to the west. Photo courtesy of Flickr user IK's World Trip.

OAK PARK, Ill — Every day renters walk into the Oak Park Regional Housing Center certain they don’t want to live on the east side of town. The east side of town, in this small suburb that borders Chicago, is geographic code for uncomfortably close to where the poor blacks live.

“I have people come in and draw a map of where they’re only willing to live,” says Kate Lindberg-Vazquez, a rental housing adviser at the center, which has a walk-in storefront steps from Chicago’s green line where renters — college students, young professionals, modest-income families — can find free help searching for a home. People walk in with mental maps and memories of stories they saw on a blog and rumors they’ve once been told. Don’t live on the east side of Oak Park.

“How there are ‘sides of town’ in a place that’s four square miles baffles me,” Lindberg-Vazquez says.

The non-profit housing center’s mission is to take those notions and gently but persistently dispel them. For decades, that's been part of this middle-class suburb's strategy to preserve its rare degree of racial integration. Last week, the Obama administration announced new rules nudging communities to desegregate — to look a little more like places like Oak Park. But while most of the attention around the rules has focused on the possibility that white suburbs will have to build new affordable housing to integrate, Oak Park has long tried another tactic: shaping preferences rather than housing itself.

That means the town is concerned not just with where minorities and lower-income families have an opportunity to live, but where middle-class whites are willing to consider, too.

[It's not Dixie's fault.]

So housing counselors lightly push back against those biases renters bring in. What exactly are your concerns, they want to know, about the east side? Have you ever been there? Let me show you a beautiful two-bedroom there I think you might love that has a washer-and-dryer in unit!

Lindberg-Vazquez ushers clients into her Subaru Outback and drives them to available units that landlords have listed through the center. She drives them past Oak Park's handsome 1920s brick apartment buildings and its craftsman-style single-family homes. The community, surrounded on most sides by more heavily segregated neighborhoods and suburbs west of Chicago, looks, on Lindberg-Vazquez's route, quaint, leafy and clean.

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The units the center has access to aren’t listed online precisely because the group wants to influence what renters see. It wants white professionals to consider apartments a few blocks from the Chicago city line, the other side of which sits the predominantly black neighborhood of Austin. It wants black families to know they’re welcome in whiter corners of Oak Park, too.

If this sounds like a reverse form of steering — the practice real-estate agents once deployed to deter blacks from segregated white neighborhoods — the housing center argues this strategy is necessary to keep segregation at bay.

“If we weren’t doing this work, Oak Park would probably remain diverse, but it would start segregating very quickly,” says Rob Breymaier, the center’s executive director. Hispanics are underrepresented here. But blacks, who make up about 22 percent of the population, are slightly overrepresented relative to the larger Chicago region. And they are not all clustered on the east side. Given how quickly rental units turn over, Breymaier estimates it would only take about five years before that fact was undone, without the center’s efforts, by newcomers who had never heard its message.

“This is not something we can stop doing,” he says. “Unless there’s an intention to promote integration, segregation often just happens because of the way our society is built.”

Racial blind spots

The center’s work is built on the premise that housing patterns in a significant way are still shaped by racial bias. And studies suggest it’s not so much that blacks choose to self-segregate; it’s that whites are open to fewer kinds of neighborhoods, search within places that are seldom integrated, and know less about communities that aren’t predominantly white.

“I think people just don’t think it matters any more — race doesn’t matter any more,” says Maria Krysan, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also sits on the housing center’s board. “Yes, it actually does.”

Krysan’s research reveals “racial blind spots” in how we search for housing. People tend to look in communities they know about, but whites are much less likely than blacks to know about places where they’re not in the majority.

When asked to describe their neighborhood preferences, whites and blacks also diverge. Blacks say they’d move to a wider range of neighborhoods, from mostly black to mostly white places. Whites are less likely to say they’d choose even moderately integrated places, and they tend to search in places that are largely white.

Krysan and colleagues have also asked blacks and whites in Chicago and Detroit to assess neighborhoods filmed in brief videos. The neighborhoods ranged from lower to upper-income, and in each one black and white actors posed as residents, as in these two videos of the same middle-class Detroit neighborhood:

In a study led by sociologist Maria Krysan at the University of Illinois at Chicago, people were asked to assess short video clips of neighborhoods with black and white actors posing as residents. Whites rated more positively the places that appeared to be white neighborhoods, compared to when the very same neighborhoods were shown with blacks. These two clips used in the study capture the same middle-class neighborhood in Detroit. (Maria Krysan)

In the study, whites were more likely to positively rate a neighborhood with white residents in it than they did the identical neighborhood when the people collecting the morning paper or walking the sidewalks were black. Those results suggest that whites aren't simply hesitant about the kinds of neighborhoods where they believe blacks live. In this case, whites downgraded black neighborhoods even when they were clearly affluent.

“The self-segregation trope tends to be thrown out about blacks in the popular discourse, ‘well blacks must want to live in these segregated places,’” Krysan says. “We’re not turning the tables around and saying whites are the ones who are more likely to be self-segregating.”

Whites today are much more likely than they were in the past to live in neighborhoods with blacks and other minorities. In fact, all-white neighborhoods in America are largely disappearing. But, says American University sociologist Michael Bader, who has conducted research with Krysan, that’s because minorities have been willing to move to once all-white places.


 

As for whites, Bader says, “they’ll stay as long as integration comes to them.”

When white families eventually leave these neighborhoods that have grown more integrated, they’re unlikely to be replaced by another white family. That means, in demographic data Bader has analyzed going back to 1970 in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston, that many integrated places have experienced over time “steady resegregation.”

"Not waiting"

Oak Park became the place it is today — progressive, proudly integrated, “the People’s Republic of Oak Park” — because of decisions residents there made in the 1960s and 1970s when the suburb was almost all-white. At the time, white neighborhoods on the west side of Chicago were rapidly changing, as real estate agents stoked the fears of white families, then turned a profit selling their homes to blacks.

As that wave of “blockbusting” approached Oak Park’s borders, residents there began to organize to avert the same fate. The housing center was created in 1972. The city passed an ordinance banning “for-sale” lawn signs, out of fear they could prompt a panic. The prohibition unofficially endures in Oak Park today. The city also created an “equity assurance” program that homeowners could pay into to hedge against the possibility of tumbling property values. But no one ever made a claim against it.

The housing center’s efforts today flow from the same tradition: “It’s proactive instead of reactive,” Breymaier says. “We’re not saying let’s wait until somebody has had their rights violated and do something about it. We’re saying let’s get involved with somebody when they’re trying to make a decision.”

About 3,500 households come through the center every year, and maybe 1,000 end up moving to Oak Park. Roughly 70 percent of them, Breymaier says, make a move that sustains or improves the community's integration.

Under the Obama administration's new rules, this is the kind of step a community could take to further desegregation. It's not costly and controversial new construction. It's marketing. It’s about, among other things, being publicly explicit that a community wants diversity.

“I feel like who wouldn’t want that?"says Lindberg-Vazquez, piloting her Subaru through town. "Who wouldn’t see the value in that?”