Evanston officials are moving closer to getting the City’s first-time reparations program off the ground, though questions are arising about the administration of the program, including the form of payments to address past injustices to African American residents.

In a presentation at the Dec. 14 City Council meeting, Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson told aldermen that the City has started receiving the 3% tax revenues on gross sales of cannabis that is to be used toward the $10 million in revenue the City Council had previously committed to the program.

Ms. Richardson said the revenue the City has collected so far from its one dispensary, Medmen, at 1804 Maple Ave., will be used to support the Council’s Reparations Committee’s first initiative — home ownership and improvement.

The Home Ownership Program is to provide eligible Black Evanston residents  with down payment or closing cost assistance to purchase real estate located within Evanston City limits, officials said.

“Currently we have this program budgeted at $400,000,” Ms. Richardson told aldermen. She said that figure could change, though, depending on demand.

Officials have gotten behind the program, recognizing that one of the barriers to home ownership is the affording a down payment. 

She said the assistance, which is not to exceed $25,000 for one individual, may be layered with Community Development as well as other external programs for which the resident is eligible, such as down payment and closing cost assistance through the State of Illinois or U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Under the program’s guidelines, all funds would be paid directly to the lending institution at the time of closing of the property.

A related Restorative Housing Reparations Home Improvement Program would also provide assistance of up to $25,000 for eligible Black Evanston residents to repair, improve, or modernize their homes.

Those funds could also be layered with other City or external programs which offer help in that area, Ms. Richardson said.

During Council discussion, Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, whose leadership role on the issue has received national attention, noted that the recommendations before aldermen came after extensive resident involvement dating back to the summer of 2019.

Out of dozens of recommendations, “housing was the most recommended remedy” to address the injustices of the past, she said.

“It is a path towards building wealth,” she noted. Further, historic housing, zoning, and other discriminatory practices “stripped away” housing opportunities for Black Evanston residents in the past, making the programs an appropriate remedy.

“The fact that this $25,000 or up to $50,000 per household could help with the acquisition or with some wealth-building as it relates to home ownership is incredible,” she said. She also pointed to a report, “State of Housing in Black America,” available on the reparations page of the City’s website, cityofevanston.org, which underscores the need for such programs.

The report describes how housing and home ownership “is our most likely path as a Black community that already has barriers, has started with less,” she said.

“We don’t have the benefit of generational wealth transfer,” she noted. “We have barriers to accessing fair financial products and so we are in need of this repair and it is what we have committed to in Evanston.”

Aldermen turned part of their discussion to the funding for the program, the first $10 million of the City’s Municipal 3% Cannabis Retailers’ Occupation Tax selected as the funding source. 

Projecting those revenues forward, said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, “We were counting on at least two dispensaries and other adult cannabis operations in the City of Evanston. So we’re working on making sure some of those licenses are released.”

Alderman Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, suggested it may be appropriate for Council members to revisit the zoning that has been established for cannabis businesses, “since we established that before we had determined what the purpose would be for that revenue.”

Toward that end, he proposed aldermen take another look at “how we’ve zoned these businesses, and see if we can do that in a more meaningful way.”

Other states’ experiences indicate that five years is what it takes to build a mature marketplace in the cannabis business, he noted. 

“What’s happening at the state level [on licensing requirements, etc.] is outside of our control,” he said. “But it is within our control to make Evanston as receptive a place as possible for those types of businesses.”

Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, a member of the Reparations Subcommittee along with Aldermen Simmons and Rainey, supported that view, up to a point.

There’s “a delicate balance,” he said, “to how many dispensaries one town can have in order for them all to be successful. And I think because it’s such a brand new industry and we have one already to the west of us in Skokie, we want to make sure that we know that anyone who did invest that type of capital is going to be successful.”