Residents, advocates discuss history of housing discrimination in Evanston


Cole Reynolds/The Daily Northwestern

Open Communities housing associate Dominic Vozand the Shorefront Legacy Center founder Dino Robinson answer questions from residents during their Tuesday presentation on housing discrimination.

Cole Reynolds, City Assistant Editor

Open Communities Housing Associate Dominic Voz and Shorefront Legacy Center Founder Dino Robinson presented causes for Evanston’s housing segregation at the Unitarian Church of Evanston for Fair Housing Month on Tuesday night.

In a 2-hour presentation on American and Evanston’s housing history, Voz and Robinson explained how racist housing covenants, redlining and exclusionary zoning policies dating as far back to the early 1900s forced many of Evanston’s Black residents to reside in the 5th Ward. 

Past racist housing practices have never truly left, they’ve only changed form, Robinson said.

“These things are repeated over and over again,” he said during the event.

Robinson talked about an early-1900s Evanston that was initially racially integrated. In the city, the three oldest historically Black churches — Second Baptist Church, Ebenezer A.M.E Church and Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church — are all located in downtown Evanston, which he said shows that Black people once lived throughout Evanston in its entirety. 

He said modern-day segregation by ward in Evanston isn’t natural but was caused by racist practices.

Voz said public policy is the primary catalyst for the city’s current housing landscape. He guided the group of about 30 attendees through a history of racist covenants, or policies preventing sales of houses to Black people, that prevented them from buying houses in certain areas of the city. 

When the Supreme Court banned explicitly racialized zoning in 1917, the federal government systematically denied Black families loans to purchase homes in “best” and “desirable” neighborhoods.

If Black families wanted to apply for loans, they would have to engage in predatory lending schemes, Voz said. Citing data from a joint Duke University and University of Illinois Chicago study, Voz said the lending schemes cost Black families in Chicago between $3 and $4 billion during the 1950s and 1960s.

Voz said his account of the city’s housing history was an attempt to reframe how Evanston residents tell the story of racism and understand present racial disparities.

“We grow up hearing about white supremacist groups, and they’re these scary individuals that harass Black people,” Voz said. “The segregated environment that we have on a racial basis, is due not to private action, but to public policy. Those things work together. I think that story hasn’t been told as much.”

While Voz spoke on national trends in housing discrimination, Robinson told a local story. He showed attendees a series of legal documents that facilitated segregation in Evanston, from 20th century housing deeds with racial covenants to redlining maps used to disburse loans in the 1930s and 1940s.

Robinson also compared the redlining maps to an annotated map of Evanston that circulated online during the 2010s in which the historically Black 5th Ward was marked with “NO” in bold lettering. He also said many Northwestern students are told not to go to the 5th Ward because they think it’s “dangerous.” 

Racist apportioning of Evanston lives on in many residents’ understanding of the city, Robinson said. The problem is perception, he said, not policy.

“You can write all the laws, but it’s very hard to eradicate these perceptions,” Robinson said.

These perceptions, he said, condition how people approach Evanston, whether it’s NU students navigating the city or where realtors will tour their clients. He told stories of Evanston realty agencies, as late as the 1990s, showing different homes to clients of different races, even if they had similar jobs or socioeconomic positions.

At the end of the presentation, Voz and Robinson answered questions from attendees about solutions to address the segregated housing landscape. Voz talked through a litany of policy changes, and proposed the city construct public housing and establish a “just cause” eviction ordinance that mandates some units of new developments must be affordable.

To address housing segregation, residents also discussed reforming the credit system, opposing City Council members’ reluctance to discuss housing developments at meetings and funding the creation of a separatist Black community in Africa. 

Additionally, Voz said embracing the feeling of national shame is a way to spur action on equity issues.  However, Evanston resident Jasamine Young-Paulhill disagreed with that strategy because “shame causes paralysis.” She said change needs to come from interpersonal action, not policy reforms.

“We can’t just keep saying ‘let’s fix the system,’” she said. “The system is doing what it’s meant to do the whole time.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented Voz’s position on shame surrounding national discriminatory housing practices. He stated that the nation should embrace shame to enact change. The Daily regrets the error. 

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