A Chicago suburb this week passed the nation’s first reparations program.
Evanston, Ill.’s “Restorative Housing Program” allocates $400,000 to fund a block of $25,000 housing grants. Eligible Black residents who are accepted for the initiative will be able to put the funds toward either mortgage, home improvement or down payment assistance.
The historic policy — it’s the first known reparations program in the country — sprouted from the city’s decision in 2019 to commit $10 million over the next decade to reparative justice for its Black residents.
Revenue for the fund is also novel, coming from the locality’s 3 percent sales tax on cannabis, which became legalized in Illinois at the beginning of 2020. The governing body earmarked the first $10 million that the tax accumulates, while also accepting private donations and contributions for the endeavor.
Evanston Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, a proponent and designer of the resolution, described the program as a “first step.”
“It is, alone, not enough,” Simmons said during Evanston’s City Council meeting on Monday. “We all know that the road to repair and justice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work. It’s going to be many programs and initiatives, and more funding.”
Simmons description of the bill is apt; only 16 Black families will benefit from the program as it stands now. Nonetheless, it attempts to tackle the massive wealth gap between white and Black households.
According to recent data from the Census Bureau, the home ownership rate for Americans at the end of 2020 was 65.8 percent. The average rate for whites was 74.5 percent, compared to just 44.1 percent for Black Americans.
Racist practices such as mortgage discrimination and redlining made it difficult if not impossible for Black Americans to purchase homes. Home ownership has proved to be one of the best ways to build wealth and for many Americans their home is their largest financial asset.
Evanston centered its program on housing because of such facts. Evanston officials also have pointed to evidence that township willfully participated in racial housing discrimination through zoning codes from 1919 to 1969.
Resolution 37-R-27 proposal passed by an 8-1 vote, with the lone dissenting tally coming from Ald. Cicely Fleming, who has repeatedly stated her support for reparations, but disapproved of the presented program.
“I think the direct payment is the way in which we see reparations done, in the span of several cases that we have [seen], sometimes coincide with other things, but there's always been a direct payment,” Fleming told The Hill, noting in a separate statement that the resolution was “a housing plan dressed up as reparations.”
Fleming isn’t wrong; Germany is still paying direct reparation payments to Holocaust survivors and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 featured direct $20,000 payments to Japanese Americans who were interned by the federal government during World World II.
However, reparations for Black Americans can and should be more than merely direct payments, reparative justice experts say.
“Not all reparations go directly into the pockets or bank accounts of individuals — that's considered compensation,” Kamm Howard, national male co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said. “[Evanston] is a restitution type redress. It looks to restore wealth, via homeownership, not restore wealth via cash payment.”
ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality director Jeffery Robinson added: “The vestiges of redlining, segregated schools, deliberately substandard medical care, none of those things can be solved by a check. Those things have to be solved by institutional changes.”
Experts also say that Evanston’s plan offers a model for Congress to observe in real time as it continues to mull over H.R. 40, the longstanding bill that would create a federal commission to explore what reparations for Black Americans would look like on a federal level.
“What happened in Evanston is a game changer because it models a specified, local remedy process,” Dreisen Heath, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who testified at the House hearing on H.R. 40 in February, told The Hill.
“We know that harms happened at the federal, state and local level. So, therefore, there needs to be, you know, separate and specialized remedies at each of those levels to deal with the specific harm that the Black community is facing,” Heath said.
Howard, who also gave testimony to the House on Feb. 17, explained that at a local level, initiatives like Evanston’s are more feasible for municipalities whose resources pale to that of the federal government.
H.R. 40 was first introduced in the House by the late Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersObama says reparations 'justified' House subcommittee debates reparations bill for Black Americans House subpanel to hold hearing on reparations for Black Americans MORE (D-Mich.) in 1989. The legislation has never received a floor vote, but Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeRepublicans call for hearing on border surge Union-owned bank backs reparations for Black Americans House passes bill to renew Violence Against Women Act MORE (D-Texas) who reintroduced the bill in January, says that Evanston’s resolution shows that the “time is now” for the longstanding legislation.
"I'm enormously excited,” Jackson Lee, told The Hill late Friday afternoon, saying that the Evanston initiative is “infused with facts and collaboration.”
“We have argued that H.R. 40 is a common sense initiative,” Jackson Lee said. “There will be a mountain of evidence that indicates that disparities can be tracked in the African American community to the unfortunate moment in history of bondage and bondage for over 200 years.”
The Chicago suburb isn’t alone in its efforts; a multitude of cities across the country, including Portland, Austin, Providence and Asheville, N.C., are working on reparations proposals of their own.
California passed a bill similar to H.R. 40 last year, creating a state-level commission to examine reparations, which Jackson Lee described as “another vehicle” to be observed when attempting to imagine what federal reparations might look like.
While H.R. 40 currently has 169 co-sponsors, it’s unclear when H.R. 40 will move out of committee, though the Texas congresswoman told The Hill that the bill would soon be marked up by the House Judiciary Committee, something that usually occurs before a piece of legislation is brought to the floor.
In the Senate, H.R 40’s companion bill has been sent to the Judiciary Committee, though the panel has yet to hold a hearing.