During its annual benefit gala held Sept. 26 at the Nineteenth Century Club, 178 Forest Ave., the Oak Park Regional Housing Center took a major step forward into the future while honoring its rich past.

Jay Readey, the Housing Center’s interim executive director, announced that West Sider Athena Williams, a program director with the nonprofit, would become the 47-year-old organization’s new permanent executive director. Williams and Readey also presented a strategic plan for the center that involves an effort to be more financially independent and more tech savvy. 

Williams was previously an assistant to the late Rev. Lewis Flowers, of the Westside Ministers Coalition. She also has experience as a Local School Council member in Chicago; as associate director of the Monroe Foundation, which provides homeownership services to people in Chicago and the suburbs; and as an administrative assistant to 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts. 

Williams has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin Madison and a variety of certifications in housing and financial counseling through NeighborWorks America, a national community development nonprofit, according to a statement released by the Housing Center last week. 

During the Sept. 26 gala, the Housing Center gave its Visionary Award to Rob Breymaier, the nonprofit’s executive director from 2006 to 2018, and presented its inaugural Roberta Raymond Founder’s Award — named after the organization’s tireless founder, who died in May — to Mark Finger, a landscape architect and longtime Housing Center volunteer. 

After receiving his award, Breymaier embraced Williams in what symbolized a moment of continuity and sustainability for an organization that was conceived in Raymond’s Grove Street living room and that, in its infancy, regularly convened in the basement of what is now First United Church of Oak Park. 

The center was formed in order to counteract what had become a national trend in the 1970s of whites leaving cities and inner-ring suburbs like Oak Park en masse after the federal government opened up housing opportunities to African Americans. 

As Wednesday Journal previously reported, “If whites wouldn’t live near blacks out of fear, the idea went, then the center would help break down the myths undergirding that fear.

“Through advertising and by meeting with prospective homebuyers and renters, the center’s advisers seek to persuade them to consider areas in the village that they otherwise wouldn’t consider because of deeply held racial biases.” 

During the Sept. 26 gala, Breymaier reflected on the center’s legacy and urged those in attendance to keep striving to perfect the vision of inclusion and integration that has characterized Oak Park over the years. 

“This place is a visionary place,” he said. “It is what we want America to be, so let’s keep working at it. Let’s not stop and say, ‘We did enough.’ I can tell you in other communities where they [stopped], the place changed. … I’m so excited to hand this off to Athena.” 

“These are exciting times and she’s earned this opportunity,” Readey said of Williams. “She’s worked tirelessly to get us here. We elevated her some months ago to a staff management role to manage the change within the organization as we got ready to share with you the things we’re doing with the strategic plan.” 

Those plans include the Housing Center developing an app “to help people choose inclusive neighborhoods and make affirmative moves using the internet and using their phones” and deploying a “new client management system to track our data and produce reports to the village and to our partners and other stakeholders,” said Readey, who will stay involved with the Housing Center as a strategic adviser. 

“We are built on face-to-face relationships with apartment-seekers,” Readey said. “That puts a face on the inclusive values of Oak Park. That’s not going to be lost, but we have heard the message — we’ve got to get with the times.” 

Williams said the plan also entails the Housing Center becoming more financially independent. Currently, the nonprofit relies on the village of Oak Park to provide most of the funds for its signature Live in Oak Park program, which provides free apartment referral services for prospective renters.  

“As we continue our work and our mission, it’s really important that we become more independent [of government funding],” Williams said, before announcing the creation of the Roberta Raymond Housing Center Legacy Fund. 

“This is a marathon. This is a long race. The work we’re doing is generational. We want to grow that here and this is why it’s very important that we continue that legacy through a fund we’re establishing,” said Maggie Leininger, the Housing Center’s accounting manager. “We already have the Diversity Fund. We want to convert that and use that as seed money [for the new Legacy Fund].” 

In a statement, Williams said she looks forward to expanding the Housing Center’s presence in Oak Park and beyond. 

“We have a lot of work to continue in the footsteps of our founder, Roberta Raymond,” she said. “We plan to build upon our site presence in the Austin community, where we’re working to ensure affordable homeownership, while we continue to promote fair and open housing that encourages racial, gender, and economic inclusion in Oak Park.”

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com