Taxes and ‘Diversity’

I am somewhat frustrated by how frequently people at local forums use ‘diversity’ when they’re talking about higher taxes. There’s language that goes like this: “If we raise taxes, we’ll be reducing diversity!”

And I want to unpack that a little, because what they’re actually saying is that if we raise taxes, then housing (whether it’s a house or a condo or an apartment) will become more expensive. Which is true, obviously. Some people will be priced out of buying a big house, and will have to settle for a smaller one. (Although as Kevin pointed out, when property taxes rise, housing prices usually drop a bit to compensate, so it’s not as clear-cut as it seems — we’re not going to have a sudden influx of super-rich people.) Some people will be priced out of buying a house at all, so may need to stay in a condo or an apartment if they want to live in this area.

Some small percentage of Oak Parkers may be priced completely out of even apartment rents — but those aren’t generally the people complaining about raising property taxes at these meetings, and the solution for them is our actually building and mandating a higher percentage of affordable rental housing. We also need more affordable housing for seniors, so that when they no longer need the big house or the small house, having raised their families, there’s an attractive option — condos near downtown, perhaps, so they can easily walk to all the amenities they’ve come to enjoy in their decades here — the parks, the libraries, the restaurants and shops.

As someone finally in a big house after many years of apartments, condos, smaller houses, someone who loves it, I absolutely understand how frustrating it is feeling like you can’t afford as much home as you want. And yes, raising taxes affects economic diversity.

But economic diversity doesn’t necessarily map directly onto racial / ethnic diversity. It does in some ways, obviously, since African American and Latinos tend to have less wealth / income on average, given the history of structural inequities in America. But raising taxes is generally being done for a purpose — in the case of the current referendum, it’s to keep the schools excellent. And there is absolutely an equity argument to be made that maintaining arts and languages and special ed and technology training at the schools is completely essential to ensuring racial and ethnicity diversity in our community and social long term.

In other words, if we want lower-income black kids to be able to get the education that will let them get the higher-paying jobs down the road that will let them afford the property taxes in Oak Park, then it’s critical that we maintain the quality of those schools. That’s the diversity mandate.

And there are discussions you can have about whether the schools or the village overall are doing enough to close the opportunity gaps for children of color, whether there are better ways to spend the money, more efficient programs that accomplish more. I’m more than happy to have those discussions.

But I find myself really irritated when ‘diversity’ gets slung around as an justification for demanding lower taxes. If we want racial and ethnic diversity, if we want *equity* in our community, taxing at a level that is sufficient to provide those critical services in our schools is absolutely key.

I can’t do anything about the Illinois state legislature and their complete inability to face that fact. But Oak Park is a progressive bastion; we pride ourselves on being a beacon of diversity and justice on the hill. That means we can and must do better.

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