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Stephanie Saunders and her mother bought their house, a Cape Cod style home on Emerson Street, about 21 years ago. They bought it “as is,” and “haven’t been able to afford to really do the full renovation that we’d like to do,” Saunders said.
On Aug. 30, Saunders joined about 40 other community members at Fellowship Baptist Church, 2201 Foster St., for the first in a series of informational sessions the City is holding on a restorative housing program.
The sessions provide information on the guidelines for the program, with the application process opening on Sept. 25 and running through Nov. 5.
If Saunders were to qualify she would use the funds to do the full restoration that had been on hold so long.
“This would be an opportunity for us to do that,” she said. “I’m really excited. It really would be great.”
The program is the first to grow out of the City’s adoption of the Evanston Local Reparations Fund, acknowledging “the harm caused to the City’s Black/African-American residents due to discriminatory housing policies and tactics and inaction on the City’s part,” according to the draft Restorative Housing Program Guidelines on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org.
In a groundbreaking move, Evanston City Council members passed the resolution establishing the City’s Reparations Fund in November of 2019.
Former Fifth Ward Alderperson Robin Rue Simmons, who played a key role in bringing the reparations issue to vote, was among officials welcoming participants at the opening session at the church.
“I’m really happy to be here, excited,” said Rue Simmons. “This is a really special day because we are moving closer to dispersing our first benefits, and we have a long road ahead of us.”
At the Aug. 30 session, Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson reviewed the guidelines of the program, also contained in a packet of materials handed out to participants.
Richardson told her audience that the program funds are to support three kinds of initiatives – home ownership, mortgage assistance and home improvements.
Those applying can qualify in one of three ways:
— As an Ancestor, a category for individuals who lived in Evanston between 1919 until 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.
Someone who can provide evidence that they lived in Evanston between those years and was over 18 at the time, “you qualify as an Ancestor,” said Richardson, reviewing the criteria. “That’s it.”
— As a Direct Descendant of an Ancestor (a child, grandchild, great-grandchild), the person would “have to have direct blood lineage to the Ancestor. It has to be a direct line,” said Richardson. “It can’t be a second cousin, a first cousin.”
— As an Applicant – a third category officials established. An Applicant would have to show that they experienced housing discrimination as a result of City ordinance, policy or practice after 1969.
Of the program criteria, “The purpose of this is not to make this a barrier or hurdle,” Richardson told participants. “It’s to try to assure that the individuals applying are eligible and we wanted to find the easiest way for that to happen.”
Some other details highlighted at the session and also included in the information packet:
— Initial applications are to be accepted, reviewed, and funded in the order of Ancestor, Direct Descendant, and Applicant.
— An approved applicant may qualify for up to $25,000, and can break up the money, spending $15,000 for Home Improvement and $10,000 for Mortgage Assistance.
— The maximum investment in any single property is $50,000, so long as the two eligible applicants are co-owners of the property.
In a rather important footnote to the draft of the program guidelines, officials noted that “funding is subject to applications approval and availability of funds.”
Officials are tapping the revenues from the City’s 3% tax on the gross sales of cannabis to fund the reparations activities, committing $10 million for that purpose.
But the program’s immediate budget is $400,000 — drawing on the local tax revenues generated by the City’s lone dispensary — enough to cover 16 families or individuals if they were to qualify for $25,000 apiece, Richardson noted during her presentation.
The City’s Reparations Committee will work to come up with some type of “transparent” process to identify those 16 people, starting with those in the Ancestor category, said Richardson.
“Once we get through the Ancestors, then it will be to the Direct Descendants. Once we get to the Direct Descendants, then it will go down to those who can show housing discrimination,” she said of the challenge facing officials.
A number of residents raised questions about the availability of records backing up their claims of ancestry.
Richardson said staff members are working with the Evanston Public Library, Shorefront Legacy Center as well as the Evanston History Center, assembling a core of research for applicants to access the information.
Stephanie Saunders said that was one of the reasons she attended the Aug. 30 meeting.
“I went to the School District to find records and this was District 75, and they have all been destroyed,” Saunders said. “My mom has been here since like 1947. I might be able to find her in the Census. She is an Ancestor, and we own our home together.”
If approved, Saunders and her mother are in line to receive $50,000, $25,000 apiece under the program guidelines, confirmed Richardson, circling the room and fielding questions from participants after her presentation.
“It would be great if she got it,” Saunders said of her mother. “We could start doing renovations.”
Melody Marion Bickhem, also at the session, had concerns about finding the information to back up her application.
She no longer lives in Evanston, but qualifies as an Ancestor, having been born in 1960 and a resident here in 1969.
She is looking to qualify for the funds and then pass them on to a sister who does live here so she can either remodel her home or put money down towards a mortgage payment.
“Or I could decide to buy a house in Evanston,” she said, adding a third option,” and try to find one with $25,000.”
Bickhem, now living in Wheeling, acknowledged it was somewhat of a quandary “for many of us who have moved away because we could not afford to buy a house here in the first place.”
“It’s just now rounding up the documentation,” she said, “because my parents have died, my grandparents are no longer alive.
“My mother worked mostly as a house cleaner. My grandmother cleaned homes. So what payroll stubs [one proof of evidence] is she going to have? I understand the school records from Foster School were destroyed in a flood. Both my mom and dad went to Foster School during that time frame.
“That’s the challenge – documentation,” she said.
The next session is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7 at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1744 Darrow Ave.
Because of social distancing constraints, pre-registration for the sessions is required. A full schedule of the sessions is on the City’s website, cityofevanston.org. Those wishing to register for and attend the Sept. 7, 15 or 21 sessions should go to the calendar on the City’s website and click on the session they wish to attend.