This week the Evanston City Council put in place a major change to its groundbreaking reparations program, which includes payments meant to address discriminatory housing laws that existed in Evanston for decades.
The initial program issued payments of $25,000 for housing benefits like mortgage assistance or renovations.
But on Monday, the City Council passed — without any opposition — an expansion of the program to provide $25,000 in no-strings-attached direct cash payments for those eligible. Black residents who lived in Evanston during a 50-year period of discriminatory zoning laws and their direct descendants receive priority for eligibility.
“The Black community, historically Black, still predominately Black today, has no access to a neighborhood school, stripped of a hospital, still no access to healthy foods,” said Robin Rue Simmons, a former member of Evanston’s City Council who sits on the city’s reparations committee.
She founded First Repair, a group that fights for reparations locally and nationally.
“Before we even see the data,” Simmons said, “we’re living in the conditions of anti-Blackness in Evanston.”
From 1919 to 1969, there were laws on the books that limited Black residents’ ability to live in Evanston areas outside the city’s 5th Ward, where they often faced substandard dwellings.
In some cases, Black families’ homes were relocated there.
Bobby Burns, the council member representing the 5th Ward, said the direct cash payments give more options to recipients.
“People can use it how they see fit,” Burns said. “They can use it for home rehab, to pay off their interest on their mortgage, or they can use it for groceries, or they can use it to repair their vehicles,” Burns said.
While the housing benefits are still available, Burns said there is a lengthy process for residents to receive those benefits.
“It involves property management, it involves construction, it involves contractors, it involves the work needing to be performed itself,” Burns said.
Sixteen residents have participated in the current housing benefits program, yet there are hundreds of applicants that the city still needs to vet.
“We cannot get the dollars out to our Black community soon enough,” Simmons said.
“Transferring $25,000 into somebody’s account — not a long process,” Burns said.
Advocates said the recipients should decide themselves what to do with the reparations.
“What constitutes reparations to me, what is really important, is that the harmed community gets to determine what repair looks like for them,” Burns said. “It’s difficult to do that when it’s restricted to a certain use.”
“It’s important that we don’t prescribe what reparations is to really any Black resident,” Simmons said.