What Price Diversity?

An opinion piece that appeared on the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.

I’m frustrated by how frequently people at local forums use “diversity” when they’re talking about higher property taxes. “If we raise property taxes, we’ll be losing diversity!”

I want to unpack that a little because what they’re actually saying is that if we raise taxes, we may lose a particular kind of economic diversity — specifically, people with working-class jobs may find it difficult to afford a house here. If people need to stay in an apartment in order to stay in Oak Park, they may decide to move somewhere they can afford a house instead, even if the schools there aren’t as good.

Some small percentage of Oak Parkers may even be priced out of apartment rents — but those aren’t generally the people complaining about raising property taxes at these meetings, and the solution for them is building and mandating a higher percentage of affordable rental housing. We also need more affordable housing for empty-nesters and seniors so that when they no longer need their house, 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.

Economic diversity doesn’t necessarily map directly onto racial/ethnic diversity. It does in some ways, obviously, since African Americans 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 and smaller class sizes at the schools is essential to ensuring racial and ethnicity diversity in our community long term.

The state’s failure to meet its promised contributions to our schools, combined with the rising numbers of students coming to Oak Park schools, combined with the tax cap that means we must go to referendum to try to make up the missing money, have created a perfect storm. We’re faced with hard choices — no matter what, some people will be hurt. All I ask is that people be aware of who, exactly, we’re talking about when we discuss “diversity.” If the schools are hard hit, it’s the most marginalized who will suffer the most.

Let’s not let “diversity” get slung around as a justification for demanding lower taxes. Let’s not conflate racial and ethnic diversity with economic diversity — they’re both valuable and worth considering, but they’re not necessarily the same thing. 

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.

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.