An Illinois Suburb’s New Housing Program Could Offer Roadmap to Reparations

Evanston, Illinois, recently launched a reparations initiative for eligible Black residents. Some experts say it’s headed in the right direction, while others question whether it can be considered reparations at all. 

Photo from the 2018 Black Business Expo and Marketplace, courtesy of Black Business Consortium Evanston North Shore (BBCENS), via Courthouse News.

(CN) — On March 19, Evanston, Illinois, became the first city in the U.S. to compensate Black Americans for slavery. The Evanston City Council approved a reparations program with a vote of 8 to 1, allocating $10 million to be dispersed over the next decade. 

Those who are eligible for the program, which is funded by donations and taxes on recreational marijuana, must prove that they’re direct descendants of Black residents in the city between 1919 and 1969. In turn, they will get $400,000 that must be used either as down payments on real estate or invested in home improvement. 

The program was proposed in 2019 by Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons, who represents the Fifth Ward. That July, a city council commission held townhalls soliciting feedback from locals about different methods for reparations. Affordable housing and economic development topped the list. 

Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons of the 5th Ward in Evanston, Illinois. (Image courtesy of Evanston via Courthouse News)

Alderwoman Simmons also had a prior career as a real estate broker, where she witnessed firsthand how urban poverty disproportionately affected Black communities in Illinois. 

It’s an exciting program for advocates across the country: Amherst, Massachusetts, Providence, Rhode Island, Iowa City, Iowa, and Asheville, North Carolina, are all attempting to launch similar programs. Georgetown University is also trying to provide scholarships for descendants of the 272 enslaved people sold to keep the college afloat. 

Many experts consider it a step in the right direction. Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, testified in favor of a reparations bill before the Maryland House of Delegates back in February 2020.  

He and Andre Perry, another fellow at the Brookings Institution, have written about the need to issue reparations for Black Americans, and they both found Evanston’s program encouraging. 

“The key point here is that Evanston is doing something that hasn’t been done before,” Ray said. “That’s admirable.” 

But one of the city councilmember’s had reservations about the program. Alderwoman Cicely Fleming called the program paternalistic and cast the lone “no” vote because the payments could only be used on housing.  

Fleming thought that it implied that Black people can’t manage their own money. 

“She never said that she didn’t support reparations, she is very much in favor of them. But her criticisms are valid, and there are some people who feel that cash payments are the only way,” Ray said. 

“Oftentimes, historically, when legislation has been passed, it looks good on the surface,” he continued, “and then, when you dig into the details, there are some issued there.” 

Not everyone meanwhile considers the program an adequate racial redress. William Darity Jr., a public policy professor at Duke University and a prolific reparations scholar, outlined a national plan for reparations in a book published last year, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century,” co-authored with folklorist A. Kirsten Mullen.

William Darity Jr. (Image courtesy of Duke University via Courthouse News)

Darity points out that the program might not be enough for many Black families to invest in a home in the area.  

The median home price in Evanston is about $432,000, and homebuyers typically must put down 20% of the price as a down payment. “If you were doing this through the private banking system in the normal fashion, you’d have to put down $25,000, which is the allocation that people are receiving,” he said in a phone call. 

The mortgage on that home would be in the ballpark of $2,500 a month. And since the average Evanston household makes about $68,292, the mortgage would be too expensive for potential buyers to make the investment. “It’s not sustainable,” Darity said. 

Some are also skeptical about the financial institutions that will be holding on to this funding. Part of what the program aims to address is redlining, a governmental effort to mandate segregation and divest resources from Black neighborhoods through local, state and federal housing policies in the early 20th century.  

The Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in lending in 1968, but the tradition has been kept alive particularly through banking, where Black Americans and Latinos are denied mortgage loans at rates far higher as compared with their white counterparts. 

Perry emphasized that a reparations program would be maximally effective if discriminatory housing and lending policies were done away with in tandem. “Moving forward, when you see these initiatives, it not only should be to find ways to get direct payments to individuals,” he said, “but it should also be used as an incentive to change their policies and practices to support Black-owned or Black-led financial institutions.” 

Darrity argued that calling Evanston’s program “reparations” is distracting, and it should be considered a housing voucher program instead. 

According to his calculations, the total annual budgets for all state and local governments in the country is $3.1 trillion, and $10 to $14 trillion is required to eliminate the racial wealth gap. “So the state and local governments would have to absorb upwards of four to five years of their budget and devote them in their entirety to reparations to be able to close the gap,” he said.  

Photo from the 2018 Black Business Expo and Marketplace, courtesy of Black Business Consortium Evanston North Shore (BBCENS), via Courthouse News.

It would be impossible for state and local governments to fill the gap by themselves, he said, “and whatever programs they set up on a small scale in their individual communities simply should not be called reparations.” 

Darity stressed that the burden for carrying out a true reparations program is instead on the federal government. “I don’t think that you can conduct reparations at the state or local level,” he said. “Reparations has to be a federal project, particularly since the target is the elimination of the racial wealth gap.” 

While advocates may disagree on the strength of Evanston’s proposal, it has sparked a national conversation about what reparations for Black Americans could look like. And cities mulling over the proposal now have a model to follow — and try for themselves. 

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