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updated: 3/1/2011 5:31 PM

Wheaton resident Bernie Kleina still carries on the fight after 40 years

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  • Bernie Kleina, executive director at HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, in his office with photos he took of the Civil Rights Movement in the background.

      Bernie Kleina, executive director at HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, in his office with photos he took of the Civil Rights Movement in the background.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer


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 home 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.

But Kleina isn't all about confrontation and lawsuits, Smith said. Over the years, he's won over many officials initially resistant to fair housing and worked to find long-term solutions, she said.

"Through his anger, he channels it into justice," she said.

Smith also credits Kleina with being the first to use videos to convey the pain suffered by victims of housing discrimination. A video Kleina produced titled "Who Should Even Have to Get Used to That," has been used by federal authorities in training, she said.

"It's a very moving video," she said. "People get teary."

Kleina, who turns 75 next month, continues to shoot photos and produce videos in his battle for fair housing.

"I think it's those interviews (with victims) that keep me going and keep me in the fight," he said.

That - and a sense of humor that turns Kleina's annual address on HOPE into stand-up comedy mixed with housing discrimination facts, Taren said.

"The reason I think he's survived doing what he does is because of his sense of humor and love of people," he said.

Life's work

The Chicago-born Kleina was a Roman Catholic priest when he became involved with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. A graduate of what is now Benedictine University in Lisle, he served in Immaculate Conception Parish in Elmhurst and at St. Michael's Parish in Wheaton.

He left the priesthood two years before he became the executive director of HOPE. Kleina, who is now married, said the calling he felt in his life never really changed.

"A lot of times, there's not a big gap between what I did then and what I do now," he said.

Kleina was involved when HOPE started in 1968 after a family was found living in a garage in Wheaton. Several individuals dug into their savings to buy and renovate a house for the needy family. HOPE members purchased and renovated other homes for families that needed affordable housing. By 1970, HOPE decided to expand its mission beyond the buying of individual homes and hired Kleina as executive director.

When he took over the leadership of HOPE, housing discrimination primarily meant whites trying to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods, Kleina said. That's not the case anymore.

Of the 2,091 discrimination complaints HOPE received and investigated in 2009, none were for color. The largest numbers were for familial status (743), national origin (650), race (335), other (166) and disability (161).

Laws prohibiting discrimination against families with children and people with disabilities often are ignored or misunderstood, Kleina said.

He cited one case in which a vision-impaired woman was denied housing because she had a Seeing Eye dog and the apartment complex did not allow "pets." The complaint was settled only after the apartment complex spent $110,000 fighting it.

"It's disappointing these things are still occurring," Kleina said. "They fight over issues that shouldn't be issues anymore."

Kleina said he frequently finds ads on the Internet indicating that housing is for "adults only." Those types of ads have long been banned from newspapers but are unregulated in cyberspace, he said.

"There shouldn't be a double standard," he said.

Kleina acknowledged that in some cases the discrimination may be unknowing, but he said the result is the same.

"Discrimination isn't always malicious and frequently it's not, but the effect of their action is not only discriminatory but hurtful and puts the home-seeker at a disadvantage," he said.

When a pattern of discrimination is suspected, HOPE may send trained testers, such as one Hispanic and one white, to a housing provider to see whether testers are treated differently.

Problems also frequently occur in townhouse and condominium associations, Kleina said. Associations may try to enforce rules such as not allowing children to play outside unaccompanied or may be reluctant to give accessible parking spaces to those who are unable to walk long distances.

"They're so mean to people in need of some consideration," Kleina said.

In addition to investigating complaints, HOPE provides training to housing providers, lenders, real estate agents and tenants.

Much with little

Operating with a full-time staff of five, including himself, several volunteers and on-call testers, Kleina admits HOPE's work is more limited than he would like. The center operates on a $400,000 budget with funds coming from donations, community block grants, competitive grants from HUD, and the sale of Kleina's photos.

Shirley Stacy, the administrative assistant at HOPE, said the photos became available only a few years ago. Kleina had thousands of pictures taken during the Civil Rights Movement on slides, but they didn't see the light until someone donated a slide reader to the center. Unlike most photos taken during the Civil Rights era, Kleina's candid shots were in color.

"He didn't realize what he had and how historic that would be," Stacy said. "It was like a revelation. It was unbelievable."

Like the photos he's taken, Kleina's dedication to fair housing is extraordinary, Taren said. He noted that his son, Jordan, recently began working at HOPE.

"I can't think of anyone I'd rather have him emulate," he said. "He (Kleina) is more committed to social justice issues than anyone."

To contact HOPE Fair Housing Center, call (630) 690-6500.