Evanston officials said there may be legal implications if the city changed the terms of its initial reparations housing grants to allow for rental assistance. Credit: Pixabay

Wary of legal complications, Evanston’s Reparations Committee has decided it will not adjust the first housing reparations program to accommodate renters unable or unwilling to get a mortgage.

Committee members at the April 7 meeting said residents who do not qualify for this housing program may still qualify for programs to come, as the housing initiative represents only 4% of the city’s $10 million commitment to reparations.

Interim Parks and Recreation Director Audrey Thompson has been tasked with following up with the 16 restorative housing grant recipients. As of April 7, she told the committee there is still one recipient who is a renter and cannot obtain a mortgage and therefore asked to use the $25,000 for rental assistance instead.

“Having developed the program, informed the public of it, and made certain representations to the application process and disbursement process, to change it up at this point … would likely get us into some legal trouble,” said committee member and attorney Claire McFarland Barber.

Many committee members agreed that rental assistance would not be possible.

“After many meetings, we decided to prioritize those individuals who have received the most discriminatory impact, which happened to be homeowners,” committee member Carlis Sutton said. “This is not to discriminate against anybody in this community who does not own a home.”

Evanston’s Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program is the first initiative in the city’s $10 million commitment; 4% of the total, or $400,000, is for housing.

Applicants deemed eligible for the program and selected to participate may receive up to $25,000 to help buy a home, remodel a home or pay down a mortgage. The home must be in Evanston and must be the applicant’s primary residence. The $400,000 figure is enough to pay for 16 grants of $25,000.

Committee members have said on several occasions that they intend to pursue additional funds for the housing program. Eighth Ward Council member Devon Reid, who is on the committee, tossed out an idea at the meeting’s end to institute a fee on lakefront homeowners. The comment, however, drew no direct response from the rest of the committee.

To have been eligible for the current housing program (the application window closed Nov. 5) Black Evanstonians must have fit one of three categories: 

  • Black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 (called “ancestors”)
  • Direct descendants of a Black resident from the period 1919 to 1969
  • Someone able to submit evidence proving housing discrimination due to the city’s policies or practices after 1969

The first 16 beneficiaries were randomly selected from the “ancestor” category on Jan. 13.

Thompson told the committee that out of the 16, six beneficiaries have chosen home improvements, six chose a combination of mortgage assistance and home improvement, two have chosen only mortgage assistance and one person chose a home purchase. One person is still undecided.

“That person … is currently a renter, and is not sure as to if she would be able to get a mortgage,” Thompson said.

Reid asked whether the undecided recipient could use the money for rental assistance.

“It’s unfortunate for people who were not clear on what the program really was about, but the program is clear,” said committee member Bonnie Lockhart. “It doesn’t limit any other programs. But I don’t feel that our reparations committee can spend time on things that are not what we were put together to do.”

Former committee member Robin Rue Simmons added that the program is really “just a spark. It’s in its infancy. We’re just, you know, taking our first tangible, shaky step.”

Reid agreed but felt more could be done.

“Part of what the charge is, is to improve the program,” Reid said. “I think there certainly is room for minor tweaks that fit within the spirit of the program…if there isn’t room for that, then really what are we doing here?”

The city also has begun to review applications for applicants of the restorative housing program who applied under the “direct descendants” category.

According to Tasheik Kerr, Assistant to the City Manager, the city has reviewed 213 direct descendent applications out of around 450.

City staff members have been able to verify 146 applications, while 56 need to be followed up with for reasons such as missing documentation. Kerr said 11 applications have been deemed unverifiable, meaning they “just submitted an application. They have no ties to Evanston and they’re not residents.”

As of April 1, there were $69,253 in donations to the city’s reparation fund.

At the end of the meeting Reid suggested instituting a fee for lakefront homeowners, whom he described as some of the wealthiest Evanstonians, as a way to generate revenue for the reparations fund.

“I think we should really begin to get past this 16,” Reid said.

Second Ward City Council member Peter Braithwaite thanked Reid but was noncommittal, urging him to submit the proposal in writing to city staff.

“Because we are hyper-focused on getting through this first initiative, It’s difficult within an hour and a half … that we’ve been allotted [monthly] to get into all that,” Braithwaite said.

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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