EDITOR’S NOTE: Gail Schechter will remain Executive Director until replacement is named.
by Lauren Barry
After 22 years of working to promote fair housing issues, Open Communities Executive Director Gail Schechter resigned effective this month.
“She is the longest executive director we have ever had,” said Jes Scheinpflug, director of communications. “She saw her vision through, and has accomplished more than she ever thought possible.”
Erickson–Pearson Search has been hired to find Schechter’s replacement, said Scheinpflug. Open Communities serves 17 cities and villages in the northern Chicago area, including Glenview. A group called the North Shore Summer Project planted the seeds for Open Communities in the 1960s. Mothers in the area who were concerned about a lack of fairness and diversity in their communities initiated the project with help from area religious institutions.
These women were active in the Civil Rights movement, and supported fair housing before the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. In 1965, that group was able to bring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Winnetka. In 1972 the group was officially established as the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council. In 2012, Schechter helped the organization transition to its current identity as Open Communities. By that time, the organization had expanded its advocacy to transportation, education and social service needs. According to Scheinpflug, Open Communities works to insure residents get fair and affordable housing through advice, education, foreclosure counseling and fair housing investigations.
“Unfortunately, a lot of housing providers are unfair and they don’t even realize it,” said Scheinpflug. Open Communities provides free instruction to realtors and landlords to combat this problem. Sheinpflug explained that during investigations, Open Communities has found that many seem to unknowingly discriminate by asking different questions and offering different properties to individuals based solely on appearance and accents.
Open Communities also has a page on its website that debunks some common affordable housing myths. These include the misconception that affordable housing lowers property values, and it won’t contribute to the local tax base. From 2013-15, Glenview was the focus of another Open Communities effort: legislative action. After some struggle, Glenview trustees eventually voted in favor of an ordinance that prohibited discrimination of renters based on their participation in Cook County’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) in February of this year.
Last year the organization launched the Justice Project, to honor the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to Winnetka.
Through the project, residents volunteer and form their own groups to help foster “welcoming communities,” focusing on access, safety and engagement.
“In the end, people really do want diversity,” said Scheinpflug, “but people are still discriminated against every single day.”
To get involved with Open Communities’ mission, or for more information, visit open-communities.org or justiceprojectcontinues.org.