Fair Housing's Elder Statesman Wheaton's Bernie Kleina Still Carries on the Fight against Discrimination after 40 Years at Helm of HOPE

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Byline: Susan Dibble sdibble@dailyherald.com

By Susan Dibble

sdibble@dailyherald.com

His doggedness is legendary. Secretaries of Housing and Urban and Development in Washington, D.C., have known Bernie Kleina on a first-name basis.

So have errant landlords, village officials, real estate agents and lenders who failed to adhere to fair housing laws. He's been called an agitator and, by one publication, "the most disliked man in DuPage County."

Kleina took that characterization as a compliment. His mission, he says, is "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Forty years after Kleina was named executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, he's not given up the fight against housing discrimination although he admits he struggles to maintain hope.

"What we do is frustrating and discouraging," said Kleina, a Wheaton resident. "I'm not satisfied with anything I've done. I feel so much more could be done, should be done, ought to be done."

Housing discrimination hasn't gone away, just changed forms, he said.

"Unfortunately, we are facing the same problems in 2010 that we did in 1970," he said. "The discrimination is more subtle. Discrimination more often happens now with a smile and handshake than it does with vitriolic remarks, although it still happens that way as well."

Kleina cites a pending case in which a black woman seeking to buy a house in a predominantly white DuPage County neighborhood was confronted with neighbors who used racial slurs and hung out a Confederate flag.

"It's disappointing those things are still occurring," he said.

Those involved in the battle against housing discrimination agree that much remains to be done, but they say Kleina has been more effective than perhaps he realizes.

DuPage County Board member Rita Gonzalez was leading a nonprofit community organization in the mid-1990s when she learned Addison had created tax increment financing districts that would raze the existing housing in two Hispanic neighborhoods that the village said were blighted.

Turning everywhere she could for help, Gonzalez contacted the U.S. Department of Justice, which joined residents in a class-action lawsuit against the village. The lawsuit stopped the demolition and resulted in millions being paid to the plaintiffs.

"Bernie really helped me from the beginning and guided me," she said. "I can't say enough about Bernie and his assistance."

Landmark advocacy

Chicago attorney Jeffrey Taren, who has represented Kleina and HOPE for 30 years, calls Kleina fair housing's elder statesman.

"He has accomplished more for housing discrimination in the Chicago area than anyone

I know," Taren said. "For every victory you have, there are a half-dozen defeats. He's never let that stop him."

Illinois' oldest fair housing center, HOPE now serves 28 counties in northern and north-central parts of the state. But Kleina's influence has spread far beyond Illinois, his admirers say.

A talented amateur photographer, Kleina became involved with fair housing issues during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Color photos he shot then of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now are shown in venues around the country.

HOPE has "changed policy nationwide through litigation, advocacy and photographs," Taren said.

A lawsuit HOPE settled with Arlington Park racetrack several years ago resulted in the track agreeing to spend more than $6 million on better housing and educational programs for families who lived and worked there.

The Arlington racetrack housing discrimination case was the first that involved migrant workers, said Shanna Smith, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance in Washington, D.C., and a longtime colleague of Kleina's.

"He's brought some very unique cases," she said. …