Cook County city becomes first in the nation to provide housing reparations for Black residents

Evanston, Ill. approved a historic reparations plan for Black residents affected by housing discrimination. The housing plan has sparked debate about whether the resolution is adequate enough to address the harm done to the Black community.

Over the next decade, $10 million will be paid to qualifying residents.To qualify for the Restorative Housing program, residents must be a direct descendent of an African American or a Black resident that resided in the city between 1919 and 1969. The city also has additional guidelines for program eligibility. 

(See more: Local Reparations: Restorative Housing Program )

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Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons, a representative of the fifth ward for Evanston, said the city council passed the reparation initiative in 2019 and recreational cannabis sales tax will fund the reparations. 

“In 2019, we passed our reparations initiative that’s funded by our recreational cannabis sales tax. On March 22, we passed our first proposal to implement and disburse reparation benefits, and it’s the Restorative Housing Initiative,” Simmons said.

Reparations will primarily be used to help Black residents build generational wealth through homeownership, Simmons said. 

“Residents are going to receive a $25,000 direct benefit for housing, which will immediately build wealth through new homeownership, or sustaining homeownership, or even paying down a mortgage balance of an existing home,” Simmons said. 

In response to negative feedback from the Black community that the resolution is not actually reparations, Simmons said the legislation is very emotional.

“It is in fact reparations because it is a direct response to the egregious acts of the Black community and it is reparations in the form of compensation. I do agree that it alone is not enough to satisfy the debt owed to black residents,” Simmons said. 

Only 4% of Evanston’s program is initiative and funding, Simmons said . 

“To judge a program on 4% of application and allocation is premature, we will continue to work toward satisfying the expectations of our residents in Evanston,” Simmons said. 

Jenny Thompson, the director of Education at the Evanston History Center, said housing discrimination has been a prominent issue in the city for decades. 

“The housing issue started in the 20th century, and the population started to grow around 1900-1910. That’s when the practices of segregation and discrimination started to occur,” Thompson said.

Black residents were relocated to certain areas of the city to accommodate other residents.

“The small Black population lived throughout the city, and realtors, homeowners, and banks started to steer away Black residents that were coming,” Thompson said. “They were mostly from the south and they would steer them into one area of the city, which was the west side, which is now the fifth ward.”

Black residents of Evanston also weren’t granted equal access to public facilities such as schools, stores, recreation facilities, and commercial facilities, according to the city of Evanston’s Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community report. 

(See more: Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community, 1900 – 1960 (and present) Report

“If you look at foreclosures in Evanston. A lot of those have taken place in the city board. So it is a long-term legacy in terms of housing in Evanston. It continues where we see it,  where people live, and opportunities for buying a house and financing,” Thompson said.

Thompson said banks would often use redlining to identify primarily black neighborhoods and financially discriminate against them. 

“There was no law that protected people. So, the consequences were really not there, you could kind of do what you want,” Thompson said. 

She said Edwin George Gain was the first Black Alderman to present the housing discrimination experienced by Black veterans after World War II to the city council. 

“After World War II, when Northwestern University and the city began to try to build housing for veterans, they were segregated,” Thompson said. “These are men who fought for our country, and now they’re coming back, and they can’t get their housing. So, there are examples throughout the 20th century of people trying to change it, and trying to say ‘this is wrong’.”

Not everyone is supportive of the proposed reparations resolution. Alderwoman Cicely Fleming was the only individual to vote NO for this resolution. 

On March 22, 2021, Fleming made a statement to explain why she voted NO for the reparations resolution. 

“I am 100% in support of reparations. I come from three legacy Black families in Evanston who have suffered enough. I am one of countless such families across the country. Real reparations are long overdue,” Fleming said. 

Jes Sheinpflug, Fleming communications assistant, explained the Alderwoman’s issue with the resolution. Sheinpflug said the reparations resolution is essentially just a housing plan. 

“As a housing plan, she would support it but the issue with putting reparations on it, is that it sets a precedent for what a model for reparations could look like across the country, in other cities and even at the federal level. The housing plan that passed is called reparations but it only provides money to 16 people in Evanston,” Sheinpflug said.

Fleming said that this resolution is dictating to Black residents what their needs are and how to use the money given to them. 

We must understand the definition of true reparations and its main goal: to do that, the people dictate its terms to power, not the other way around,” Fleming said. “This isn’t change that can be a beacon for the nation. It is a dim, weak light and it will be a travesty for Black communities around the US if it becomes our model going forward.”

Sheinpflug said the reparations resolution lacks a clear plan of execution and was seemingly rushed due to the upcoming Evanston city council elections. 

Evanston has been saying that there’s going to be $10 million over 10 years. That’s all they’ve been saying. We don’t even know how people can apply,” Sheinpflug said. “There is an election that’s happening right now. A lot of these city council members are either running or have already voted off in the primary so it was rushed with no input from Black residents.”

Fleming said many community members asked for more time to rework and strengthen the proposal and change the name from reparations but the resolution still moved forward.

“Although Evanston is one of the first municipalities to attempt local reparative efforts in this manner, historical practices provide a framework for reparative compensation, and in no instance were the impacted parties denied cash payments or an opportunity to decide how their repair would be managed,” Fleming said. “This practice alone is based on a white paternalistic narrative that Black folks are unable to manage their own monies.” 

Sheinpflug said the 16 Black people who qualify for the program never directly receive the payments. They said Flemings wants the funds to be given directly to the Black people who qualify in cash payments. 

“The money is given  directly to the bank, they can only use it towards their mortgage, they can use it towards a down payment or they can use it towards a contractor for repairs. They have to use it towards the primary investments of Evanston. Say they moved away from Evanston, then they are not eligible, say, it’s an older person who doesn’t own a house anymore, they’re not eligible. It’s very, very limited who can apply for this,” Sheinplfug said.

Fleming claims the proposal is lacking in detail and the longevity of the plan was not assessed. 

“There has not been a feasibility study, there is no groundwork for future reparative options, nor have we firmly provided economic rationale for the $25,000 allocation amounts,” Fleming said. 

Fleming hopes that the Evanston community will slow down and listen to the Black community that has been directly impacted from years of racism. Fleming said that the mistrust the Black community already has in the government is amplified by the bold claims that this resolution is historic. 

“Understanding that not everyone will be satisfied, we still owe it to Black Evanstonians to develop a plan that is clear, fair, data based, and one that can truly start to address racialized harm, marginalization and discrimination. It is through this truth-telling and deliberate work that we can bring our community together,” Fleming said.

 

Courtney Alexander can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at ___Courtney_alex23______. 

Reporter Ore Ojewuyi can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @odojewuyi. 

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