City Council passes the country’s first reparations program for Black residents

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Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th). Aldermen passed a restorative housing reparations program by an 8-1 vote Monday, with Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) opposing.

Alex Harrison, Reporter

Evanston’s City Council voted 8-1 to implement the Restorative Housing Reparations program Monday, with Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) opposing

The program will become the first material action on reparations for Black Americans in the nation’s history, commiting the first $400,000 of Evanston’s $10 million reparations initiative to grants for housing assistance.

“We all know that the road to repair and justice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work,” Ald. Robin Rue Simmons (5th) said. “What I’m excited about is the new engagement, the new interest in what we’re doing… All I heard today was support of reparations.”

Grants of up to $25,000 will be disbursed to about 16 households  for purchasing a home, paying off a mortgage, or home repair. Eligible Black residents include those who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969, those who have a direct ancestor who lived in Evanston during that time period, or those who can prove they experienced housing discrimination due to the city’s policies after 1969. 

Before the vote, an extended public comment period was given to accommodate for an outsized audience. Out of 53 people who spoke in public comment, 21 voiced support for the program, while 19 gave opposition.

Rev. Michael Nabors, pastor of Evanston’s Second Baptist Church, emphasized the historic weight of the program’s passage and implementation.

“This evening, we are standing on the precipice of enormous change,” Nabors said. “Let me encourage every alderperson to vote yes tonight. I encourage you to vote yes because we have waited long enough.”

The vote came almost two years after city officials began dialogue about a reparations initiative, and follows several weeks of growing criticism from residents who say the program does not represent “real reparations.”

Resident Meleika Gardner, of Evanston Live TV, said she supports the program for its actual effects, but opposes calling it reparations.

“The opposers just do not want this housing program to be called reparations, because it is not reparations,” Gardner said. “We don’t want to block the 15 from getting their housing program, we want them to get the assistance that they need. But do not call it reparations.”

Just three weeks before the vote, community group Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations (E3R) launched on Facebook to pressure aldermen to vote against the program or to wait to vote until a new City Council takes office in May.

Resident and E3R organizer Kevin Brown said during public comment that the program wasn’t properly planned out, and would leave too many questions unanswered after passage.

“When one is building a house, one does not build a kitchen, and then say ‘We will add other rooms as we figure out what kind of home we’re going to build,” Brown said. “It’s just bad public policy, and it blatantly leaves an impression that Black people are not entitled to the same levels of concern and care as other City programs and projects.”

The national attention the city has received for its reparations initiative hasn’t all been positive, either. 

Last Thursday, conservative D.C. lawyer C. Boyden Gray sent a letter to Mayor Steve Hagerty and City Council denouncing the reparations program as “unconstitutional.” Gray sent the letter on behalf of prominent conservative activist and Project on Fair Representation director Edward Blum. POFR has supported numerous legal challenges nationwide to laws based on race or ethnicity.

Before opening the proposal to Council discussion, Rue Simmons acknowledged the letter, and said the reparations subcommittee worked closely with the law department to make the program safe from legal challenge. She added that numerous law firms have partnered to offer the city pro bono representation should a lawsuit come.

Deputy City Attorney Nicholas Cummings said defending the reparations program in court has always been assumed as a necessity.

“I have had an opportunity to review the letter, and it doesn’t come as a surprise,” Cummings said. “It’s the reason why I’ve advised the subcommittee the way that I have, in order to try to tailor something that could withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

Many aldermen used their time during Council discussion to praise Rue Simmons for her work in leading the reparations initiative. Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) took special note of the attention, both national and international, that Rue Simmons brought to the city’s program.

“People all over the world have been drawn to this city because of her efforts,” Rainey said. “Going to the National League of Cities, going to different universities, speaking, receiving awards. That is why we are where we are today.”

Fleming, who cast the only opposing vote, said while she supports the program as a housing initiative, she does not believe it should be called reparations. 

She said the narrow ways beneficiaries can use their reparations takes away recipients’ power to use reparations as they see fit, which could set a dangerous precedent for programs elsewhere.

“Rather than (this program) dictating to Black people what they need and how they will receive it, we need to listen more to the people,” Fleming said. “I do have concerns that as a government, we are projecting something to the nation as a bright light that might be very dim for other people.”

After the vote passed 8-1, Hagerty said the work on reparations in Evanston is only just beginning.

“I think the discussion this evening, with the voices on all the different sides of this issue, was a valuable one,” Hagerty said. “There’s a lot of work to be done… Thank you everyone for all the hard work to get us to this point.”

Mayor-elect Daniel Biss also supported the resolution’s passage in a statement prior to the vote. He said he is committed to ensuring all community members are heard as Council members work to allocate the remainder of the $10 million fund. 

 Applications for the program will open mid-summer 2021 at the earliest.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @alexhairysun

Related Stories:

In Focus: With the eyes of a nation on Evanston, the first step of the historic reparations program faces pushback

Ald. Fleming to vote against the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program

Conservative D.C. lawyer denounces Evanston reparations proposal as “unconstitutional”

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