Talk focuses on ways to keep Columbia's ideal of fair housing alive

For The Baltimore Sun
How to keep alive Jim Rouse's call to make Columbia an "open city?"

Sustaining racial integration in housing requires constant stewardship, even in a planned community built on diversity.

That's the theme of a talk being given Tuesday by the head of an Illinois fair-housing organization to Howard County leaders and residents who seek to preserve Columbia's legacy of inclusiveness.

Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, will also offer insight into the operations of the nonprofit, which has a 44-year history of maintaining racial integration in communities west of Chicago.

"There is caring and concern in Columbia about remaining true to its core values," said Breymaier, who has headed the nonprofit for 10 years. "'What do we need to put in place to keep the dream alive?' That's the question people want answered."

"Sustaining Racial Integration in Housing in Columbia: Exploring the Model of Oak Park, Ill.," will be offered at 7 p.m. at the Owen Brown Community Center on Cradlerock Way.

The talk is part of the Columbia Association's ongoing Community Building Speakers Series, which was launched in 2010.

Jane Dembner, the association's director of planning and community affairs, said Columbia's commitment to racial integration lies at the heart of the community.

"Integration was built into the fabric of Columbia," Dembner said, describing an August 1967 memo from Columbia founder James W. Rouse to developers and sales associates that mandated Columbia would be "an open city" — a term used at the time to describe a policy of welcoming all races.

"It's in Columbia's DNA, and people have passed the diversity gene from one generation to the other," she said. "We celebrate that heritage, but how do we sustain it?"

Breymaier said he knows of communities in America that worked to establish racial integration, but halted their efforts once they had achieved it.

"To preserve and sustain what we cherish, we must continually investigate best practices," he said.

Breymaier noted that, unlike Columbia, the long-established village of Oak Park had to decide to become racially integrated, a process that "took 15 to 20 years to get to where we wanted to be" after the housing center was founded in 1972.

The nonprofit currently offers free apartment referrals, assistance to property owners and managers, and training, education, research and advocacy in fair housing, according to its website.

Since Oak Park has "marketed itself for decades as priding itself on diversity, people from different racial backgrounds will always show up" to live there, he said.

"That's not to say that Oak Park is utopia. We're not perfect — and no community's 100 percent right on — but our intent [to foster racial diversity] is consistently there.

"In places like Oak Park and Columbia, people definitely try harder than everyone else to put policies into place that let them live out their values and that takes intentionality to achieve," he said.

Breymaier said the "dissimilarity index" — a tool that measures the evenness with which different groups are distributed across a geographic area — is one way to assess a community's level of integration. On a scale of 0 to 100, zero indicates complete integration and 100 signifies complete segregation.

"No one's at either end of the scale," he said.

Although the most common figures for communities range from 60 to 80, Oak Park has an index of 31, he said.

He said he has not attempted to calculate a number for Columbia.

Dembner said Money magazine's No. 1 ranking of Columbia in its "Best Places To Live 2016" roundup, which was released in mid-September, highlights the city's economic and social diversity. The publication's staff chose 50 locales from cities with populations of 50,000 to 300,000 for its annual list.

"They thought our diversity was impressive, and that's very cool," she said. "But our goal at CA is to stimulate a dialogue. Is there a need for us to do something similar to what Oak Park is doing? What would work here?"

Breymaier said the rental market is the most effective arena in which to create change because it's more in flux than neighborhoods where people own their homes.

When people seek the Oak Park housing center's advice on where to live, "we don't shy away from talking about race if they want to discuss it," he said.

"People's knowledge is so incomplete; they don't know about parts of a region where their race is not prominent," he said. "We market affirmatively to expand people's options, thereby fulfilling the true spirit of fair housing."

One-third of Columbia's residents are renters, Dembner said, but local leaders also want to "find ways to make sure all housing is integrated."

Breymaier said the increasingly diverse makeup of America is driving communities to become more proactive about ensuring they are welcoming to all races.

"Promoting racial integration in housing is really a strategy for social growth and equitable prosperity," he said. "We can never let our guard down, though. Communities like ours are unique; they're not the norm."

For more information or to register for Tuesday's event, go to columbiaassociation.org/events or call 410-715-3166.

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