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Chicago suburb faces federal class action over reparations program

The first-of-its-kind reparations initiative is meant to address the historic housing injustice that Black Evanston residents once faced.

CHICAGO (CN) — Six people filed a federal class action against the Chicago suburb of Evanston on Wednesday, hoping to scrap the racial component of a local program meant to address historic racial injustice.

The Restorative Housing Program is an Evanston initiative to compensate Black residents for housing discrimination they or their ancestors may have faced between 1919 and 1969. It assists eligible applicants with buying or improving their own homes, and in some cases qualifies households for direct payments of up to $25,000.

The six plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they would qualify for the program's $25,000 payment as well, were eligibility not limited to 20th century Black Evanston residents and their descendants. None of the plaintiffs are Black and none currently live in Evanston, but their parents did.

"But for the program’s race-based eligibility requirement, plaintiffs would be in line to receive $25,000 direct cash payments as 'direct descendants,'" the plaintiffs argued.

The plaintiffs are being represented in the suit by Michael Bekesha, a senior attorney with the conservative legal nonprofit Judicial Watch. Bekesha claimed in a phone interview that the Restorative Housing Program violated equal protection law by excluding non-Black people.

"The program is unconstitutional as it is written and as it's being applied," Bekesha said.

Given the purported unconstitutionality, the plaintiffs seek to certify a class of other non-Black people who they claim should be eligible for the $25,000 payments. They predicted that such a class would number "in the tens of thousands, if not more." They also seek to strip being Black as a requirement to receive the Restorative Housing Program's benefits.

"Plaintiffs ... seek an injunction enjoining [Evanston] from continuing to use race as a requirement for receiving payment under the program and request that the court award them and all class members damages in the amount of $25,000 each," the six wrote.

As an effort to address historic injustice against Black people specifically, it's unclear what would happen to the Restorative Housing Program if Black people were no longer its main beneficiaries. Bekesha sidestepped the question of why his clients targeted the program, or what they wanted it to become. Members of Evanston's Reparations Committee declined to comment.

Bekesha also brushed off the question of standing — when asked what injury his clients would suffer if denied eligibility to this reparations program, he reiterated the argument that they could all be $25,000 richer were it not for the program's rules.

The attorney added his clients took umbrage with how the program does not require applicants to specifically prove they or their ancestors were victims of housing injustice. Any Black person who resided in the city between 1919 and 1969 can apply, as can any child, grandchild or great-grandchild of a Black person who lived in Evanston in that timeframe.

"That could be one day or that could be all 50 years," Bekesha said.

Judicial Watch's own press release on the suit contained more charged language, stating, "Evanston, Illinois Directs $25,000 Payments Exclusively to Blacks."

The press release also detailed similar cases Judicial Watch has prosecuted, including against San Francisco's 2022 Guaranteed Income for Trans People program and its successful effort to to scrap California's former diversity mandate for corporate boards.

Evanston became the first city in America to enact a reparations initiative like the Restorative Housing Program in March 2021. It's only the first step of the city's 2019 commitment to distribute $10 million in local reparations, funded by a 3% tax on recreational cannabis sales.

"Reparations, and any process for restorative relief, must connect between the harm imposed and the city," Evanston explains on its website. "The strongest case for reparations by the City of Evanston is in the area of housing, where there is sufficient evidence showing the city’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early city zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the city banned housing discrimination."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Government, Regional

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