Chicago, IL

Will This Chicago Suburb's Reparations Program Pave the Way for the Nation?

Jennifer Geer

Evanston, Illinois, approved housing grants to Black residents to make amends for decades of housing discrimination. Is it enough, and will it spur change in other cities?

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(Skyline of Evanston) Nutmegger at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From 1900 to 1940, Evanston's Black population grew by more than 5,000 residents, yet they were forced to live in a small area on the west side of town. From 1910 to 1940, records 84% of Black residents lived in this heavily segregated area.

A report conducted by the city of Evanston illustrated how the banks, neighbors, and community leaders discriminated against Black people trying to buy homes during that time. The segregation led to overcrowding, housing shortages, and a rise in prices. By 1940, this small area of Evanston was at 150% occupancy.

The report demonstrated that the city was complicit in the discrimination, which led the way to the reparations housing grants program that was just approved.

Evanston, located 12 miles north of Chicago and situated along Lake Michigan, is the first city in the nation to approve a reparations program like this one to Black residents. But some feel, although it's a start, it's not enough.

What is the program?

Evanston's City Council voted 8 to 1 to approve the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program. It grants households $25,000 for housing-related needs such as down payments, repairs, closing costs, or interest payments on Evanston property.

To be eligible, a Black household must have lived in Evanston between 1919 to 1969, or be a descendant. And they must have been a victim of housing discrimination at the time.

The funds for the program come from tax revenue from the 3% sales tax on marijuana. Evanston plans to redistribute $10 million over the next ten years.

There is some opposition

The one city council vote against the housing grant program came from alderwoman Cicely Fleming, a Black resident of Evanston whose family has lived in Evanston since at least the early 1900s. Though she supports reparations, she doesn't feel this program is strong enough.

"As 'Reparations in Name Only,' there is no autonomy for the community harmed." Fleming said in a statement, "Instead of cash payments, which respect the humanity and self-determination of Black people and allow them to decide what’s best for themselves, this housing program is restrictive and only allows limited participation."

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, one public commenter said that although her family has lived in Evanston for generations, she doesn't own a home and therefore is not eligible for the plan, “We want cash payments."

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Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Is Evanston leading the way?

At the national level, HR 40 legislation, introduced in 2019, proposes creating a committee to investigate and study reparations plans for Black Americans. The Biden White House has suggested they would support studying reparations.

A poll conducted last August shows the American public is deeply divided on the issue. Though 80% of Black Americans support reparations, only 21% of white Americans in the poll agreed.

Currently, other communities throughout the U.S. are looking into reparations programs themselves, including the state of California, Iowa City, Iowa, and Amherst, Mass. In Asheville, N.C., a reparations plan was passed last year. But rather than making direct payments or grants, the program focuses on rebuilding in underprivileged Black areas.

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(Evanston, IL) See page for author, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

How did segregation create an income gap between racial groups?

In Richard Rothstein's book, The Color of Law, he examines how the federal housing policies of 1933 mandated segregation. Part of the New Deal, intending to improve the housing shortage problem; this plan improved white middle-class neighborhoods while refusing to insure houses in African-American neighborhoods.

As a result, white middle-class families were able to secure homes, and begin building wealth they could pass down through generations. Minority groups were left out of the housing boom and were unable to amass wealth through the nation's increasing property values.

Policies like this happened all over the U.S., where white people were given housing advantages that people of color were not. It is this disparity that the Evanston program hopes to make amends for. Only time will tell if it is just the beginning.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

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