(CNN) — As a child, Robin Rue Simmons didn’t know the Evanston neighborhood she called home was an area where Black families were once forced to live.
Rue Simmons grew up just north of Chicago in Evanston’s 5th Ward, where banks refused to give mortgage loans to Black families until 1969.
In Evanston, Black people were restricted to a certain portion of the 5th Ward and excluded from other parts of the city.
The area “was disinvested in, stripped of a neighborhood school and access to health care,” Rue Simmons told CNN.
“There were specific anti-black zoning laws and housing practices that are responsible for our racial segregation — not only our physical segregation, but our wealth gaps and home ownership gaps and all other racial gaps that we have here in Evanston,” she said.
Those discriminatory housing policies led Rue Simmons, a former alderwoman, to push for reparations. Under Rue Simmons’ leadership, Evanston became the first city in the United States to pass a reparations resolution in 2019 for Black residents who qualified.
“It is a $25,000 direct benefit to build wealth through home equity,” Rue Simmons said. “Black Residents that lived in Evanston during the period of harm, which was 1919-1969, or their direct descendants are eligible.”
In March 2021, officials voted to release the first batch of funds in that program, and the first recipients were awarded grants in 2022.
Initially, the grants of up to $25,000 were restricted to mortgage assistance, renovations or a down payment on a home. Earlier this month, the Reparations Committee unanimously recommended the inclusion of a fourth option for beneficiaries receiving payment through the housing program: a direct cash payment to beneficiaries.
On Monday night, the Evanston City Council approved a cash option to its Housing Restorative Program. The meeting lasted three hours and it took the council three seconds to approve the cash option. Now, the program includes direct cash benefits for those who qualify.
There was no discussion because it was listed on the consent agenda. Council member Devon Reid told CNN by phone after the vote, “the items on the consent agenda are non-controversial items.”
At the end of the meeting, Reid appeared via Zoom with his camera off and spoke about the change.
“I just want to highlight how special Evanston is. Tonight, we passed what I believe is a historic amendment to our reparations program. It was just on the consent agenda and there’s no fuss, no folks coming out, you know protesting. No dissent amongst the council,” Reid said.
He added this will allow Evanston to move forward swiftly.
“This will allow us to get funding to our ancestors in a much more expedient fashion. We will be able to get that money out to folks and be able to provide some repair to our Black community and to the harmed community who has suffered from uh housing discrimination,” Reid said.
So far, the city has only spent $326,836 of the $10 million promised.
Tasheik Kerr, an assistant to the city manager, told CNN 124 people are still on a waiting list to receive money. Six who were eligible died before receiving payment.
Overall, Kerr said 650 residents have applied. The city is still sorting through applications and at least six people who qualified have died while waiting for their grant.
“We have stalled because of complications,” Rue Simmons said. “It has taken longer than we expected. And some of those challenges have been really underestimating, operationally, the work.”
From Asheville, North Carolina, to Detroit, Michigan, cities across the country are trying to repair harms caused by institutional racism. In San Francisco, a reparations committee is seeking payments proposed of $5 million to every eligible Black resident. A final report that includes board feedback is due in June, according to the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee.
The complications Evanston has seen with funding and distributing funds will come up across the US, Rue Simmons said. “We’ve had challenges, but we have found solutions,” she said. Those struggles were highlighted in the 2023 documentary “The Big Payback,” by Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow.
Funding for a repair of this magnitude is a tough hurdle to clear, Rue Simmons said. While she and her team worked on reparations in Evanston, the state of Illinois approved recreational marijuana, which went into effect in 2020 -- and that provided the initial funding for Evanston’s reparations initiative.
“It is one thing to identify a harm and prescribe a remedy,” Rue Simmons said. “In the case of Evanston ...we have been led to understand and appreciate that home rule taxes are our most viable way to fund reparations being that they’re within our purview.”
Some recipients hesitant about cash option
Ramona Burton is among the 14 people who have received the $25,000 grant so far. The 74-year-old woman has lived in Evanston her entire life but was born in Chicago. Back then, the city didn’t allow “the birth of Black” babies in certain hospitals, she said.
Burton said she used the money to purchase a new roof, install eight new windows and a privacy fence, as well as repair her chimney.
“I wasn’t planning on buying a new home at my age and my home is paid off. So, I used it for renovations,” the 74-year-old told CNN. “I was so excited when I found out. We didn’t get the money in our hands. We never see the money. The city paid the contractors for the work.”
That’s what 88-year-old Louis Weathers, another grant recipient, said he wants to remain in place. He is not in favor of the cash option the council approved Monday.
“I don’t think they should do that. They should have some stipulations that will help the city in housing. Something that will help the value of my property stay stable or go up,” he said. “Giving people cash isn’t a good idea unless you put it in a trust, and you can only get so much each year.”
Kimberly Holmes-Ross is among 124 approved residents but is still waiting to begin her project.
Her father, she said, migrated to Evanston from the South following the Korean War. Like Rue Simmons, she was raised in the 5th Ward with her parents but has since moved to the city’s 2nd Ward.
“My parents weren’t even shown houses in this ward in 1962 — everything was over in the 5th Ward. That is what they were shown and allowed to buy,” she said, standing in the neat yard of her home. “We’re looking to either build another house or add on to our garage.”
Holmes-Ross expressed some hesitation about the cash option and said there must be checks and balances.
“I hope it doesn’t stray too far from the original plan, where they could prove the harm. The harm was in housing and in redlining,” she said.
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