Community advocates celebrate direct cash payment reparations option but push for more funding


Daily file illustration by Lily Ogburn

As payments to ancestor recipients draw to a close, residents inquired when the process would begin for direct descendants.

Pavan Acharya, Print Managing Editor

In March, City Council approved a direct cash payment option for all recipients of the city’s reparations program, following years of community advocacy for the option.

However, many local activists still feel the Restorative Housing Program currently does not do enough to repair harm against Black residents from decades of discriminatory policies.  

The program was designed to address the city’s role in housing discrimination toward Black residents as a result of zoning ordinances from 1919 to 1969. Prior to March, reparations recipients could only use the $25,000 allocated through the program toward a down payment on a new property, mortgage payment or home improvement.

Some community advocates, like Evanston Live TV Founder Meleika Gardner, felt the program previously did not give Black residents enough agency regarding the use of their own reparations. The initial restrictions left recipients who rent unable to use their allocation. 

Though Gardner said she believes $25,000 is still not enough to repair harm, she also said the implementation of direct cash payments will offer recipients the freedom to use money as they see fit.

“Cash is king,” she said. “Financial freedom gives you choices in this life and in this world.”

Community members have been advocating for direct cash payments within the reparations program since 2019, Gardner said. However, she said many of these efforts have been unsuccessful since no one was “sitting at the table” to fight for the option.

She added that she believes the city’s Reparations Committee and City Council likely agreed to support direct cash payments once pressure from residents increased, following publicity around the committee’s decision to approve the option for two Evanston residents in early March. More than 100 people attended the later March meeting when the committee approved the direct cash payment option for the Restorative Housing Program.

Even with the increased pressure, the motion was tough to pass in committee, but Ald. Devon Reid (8th) led the push for it. 

Some city staff have said a direct cash payment option that aims to help program recipients with rent costs would benefit landlords and not necessarily tenants.

The city’s law department has also said direct cash payments would have to come from a general welfare fund, rather than the city’s reparations fund, to ensure beneficiaries of the program are exempt from income tax on the money.

Reid, who later voted with the rest of City Council to approve direct cash payments, said he believes the option will allow Evanston to distribute reparations money at a faster pace, in addition to providing recipients with more flexibility.

Black residents in Evanston have criticized the pace of distribution of money through the Restorative Housing Program. As of February, 16 residents have received the $25,000 grant through the program, while more than 100 remain on the waiting list.

“With folks who are over 70, we cannot delay getting these funds to them,” Reid said. “Offering direct cash payments as an option will allow us to more efficiently get those funds out.” 

About 650 of Evanston’s more than 12,000 Black residents have applied for the program. Black residents who lived in the city from 1919 to 1969, or are direct descendants of someone who did, are eligible.

Reid said city leadership has been debating direct cash payment for the reparations program for the past few years. Some councilmembers worried incorporating the option would bring the program under increased scrutiny nationally, he said.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court, in which conservatives currently hold a 6-3 majority, might uphold a challenge to the program. 

“But there’s certainly a program that can survive legal scrutiny,” Reid said. “We can craft this in a way that meets all the goals that we’re seeking to meet.”

Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, an organization founded in 2021, has advocated for the direct cash payment option since the group’s founding, according to member and former Evanston mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls.

Although the organization has been “non-active” in the past few months, Nalls said he believes it helped highlight issues within the Restorative Housing Program. 

Nalls said the organization disapproved of the initial version of the program because the mortgage option directed money toward banks — which he said were the perpetrators of housing segregation in Evanston.

“Where we got our name from was based off of the idea that the banks were essentially receiving a benefit from this housing program,” he said.

Implementing the direct cash payment partially resolves this, Nalls said, since recipients will have the ability to use their money for means besides taking out a loan or putting money down for a mortgage.

Since the group’s inception, he said he’s been advocating for the program to find alternative forms of funding. The reparations program is currently funded through a tax on cannabis and real estate transfers. However, Nalls believes Northwestern, which he said has contributed to discriminatory housing practices in Evanston, should also provide funding for the program. 

“(NU) was responsible for removing many of the Black residents and segregating their own Black students to the 5th Ward,” he said. “Recognizing that that is a direct housing issue, that should be able to translate directly into that housing program.”

Since Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to implement a reparations program for its Black residents, the Restorative Housing Program has attracted significant national attention. 

Some, including Duke University Prof. William Darity, have argued the city should not implement a local reparations program and should instead advocate for national efforts because the federal government is primarily responsible for current conditions.

“The primary objective of a reparations plan must be to eliminate the racial wealth gap in the United States,” Darity said. “(Evanston) doesn’t really have the capacity to meet the minimum target for a reparations plan.”

A scholar and author on reparations, Darity spoke at a City Council meeting in 2019 when the body was considering creating a reparations fund.

Darity said he thinks the direct cash payment option is an “improvement” for the program and is less “paternalistic.” But despite the changes, he still believes the $25,000 payment does not constitute reparations. 

Darity said the federal government has previously employed direct cash payments as a method of reparations — such as with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which awarded $20,000 to Japanese American citizens for ordeals they suffered due to internment camps during World War II — and can do so again.

He added that he thinks the number of residents who will receive reparations from Evanston’s current program is not enough to account for the number of people who may have been subject to housing discrimination in the city.

Gardner supports the program as a form of housing assistance, but she said she doesn’t think it is adequate reparations, even with the direct cash payment option.

“I’m glad they’ve got it,” Gardner said. “But that shouldn’t have been their reparations for years of discrimination and racism and terrorism done to Black people.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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Reparations Committee approves direct cash payment option for Restorative Housing Program recipients

‘Too little, too late’: Black residents disillusioned by pace of Evanston reparations program