Last year, Columbia Association (CA) hosted a session with Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, who talked about the success the organization has had in promoting integration in rental housing and increased economic prosperity throughout that Chicago-area community.
Oak Park and Columbia are two very different communities. While Columbia was founded on the principles of integration and diversity, Oak Park had to work intentionally to become racially integrated; yet, there is much to learn from Oak Park’s success, and there are many reasons to emulate the community’s good work.
One reason is that there are early signs of pockets of racial segregation in Columbia — areas where concentrations of various racial or ethnic groups are occurring. Presently, it is not dramatic, but it exists and is not in alignment with the founding values of the community.
Another reason is that history shows that one early sign of decline in a community is when an area/neighborhood is no longer desirable by one or more racial groups. Left unchecked, racial concentration in neighborhoods leads to school segregation, stress on local businesses, unstable property values, lower tax revenue and — above all — a lack of understanding about those of different races and ethnicities.
We need to plan and act now, as our community has a high quality of life, to ensure that Columbia retains its diversity and its prosperity.
During the past year, CA’s director of planning and community affairs, Jane Dembner, has been involved with a group working to explore establishing a Columbia Housing Center. The group consists of representatives from government, private sector businesses, faith-based entities and nonprofit organizations. Earlier in 2017, the Center incorporated, and is awaiting its charitable status determination letter from the IRS with hopes of being operational in mid-2018.
During the interim, members of the group will be undertaking an intensive fundraising campaign and building the Center’s capacity.
The Center was founded with a mission to honor Jim Rouse’s legacy by continuing the emphasis on racial integration in Columbia and beyond. It will be a resource for anyone searching for a rental home in Columbia, as renters make up about one-third of Columbia’s households. The Center will connect landlords with potential tenants, and tenants with apartment homes that fit their needs, and will serve as a resource for related information about rent, number of bedrooms, amenities and location.
Also, there will be information so that customers will know about the mission of racial integration in Columbia, and they will receive a recommended list of apartment homes to help further that goal.
“The Columbia Housing Center was established to intentionally sustain our community as an integrated one that is attractive and welcoming to all,” said Dembner. “This will positively affect property values, education equity, social cohesion and civic life. It furthers Columbia social and prosperity goals.”
CA’s Community Building Speakers Series, which featured Breymaier, has the express purpose of bringing to Columbia thought-provoking speakers on topics that stimulate us to discuss, engage and build on our sense of community. It is good to get us thinking about, and discussing, our community. It is even better for us to take steps to make our community better.
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