One US city plans to pay reparations to Black homeowners. Will the practice expand to yours?

When Morris “Dino” Robinson tried to refinance his house in Evanston, Illinois, in January, he was shocked to learn his first appraisal was $100,000 lower than a previous appraisal in 2017.

Robinson then sought a second estimate. It determined that the value of his home in Evanston’s fifth ward – a predominantly African American part of town – had actually increased by $75,000 in that four-year span.

He signed the paperwork based on that appraisal last month, frustrated but not that surprised by the $175,000 swing in his property's value.   

The first appraisal "risked the equity of my home,” said Robinson, who is Black and is the executive director of the Shorefront Legacy Center, a nonprofit that archives the history of Black residents in Evanston and nearby north Chicago suburbs. “Therefore, it jeopardized my net worth," he added. "This is an ongoing and frustrating process for people like me that needs to end.”

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Morris "Dino" Robinson is the executive director of the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, Ill. Robinson's organization provided city leaders most of the documentation of Evanston’s longstanding housing discrimination as the city seeks reparation for many of its Black homeowners.

Homes owned by Black residents have been undervalued for generations, Evanston officials say. Now, the Chicago suburb will try to make amends for that inequity by giving Black residents housing assistance, a form of reparations – or financial compensation – paid by a government for the harm slavery and discrimination have caused generations of Black Americans.

Residents could begin applying later this month and disbursements could come as soon as this fall, said Robin Rue Simmons, the former Evanston city council member who sparked the idea.  

The initiative pushes Evanston to the forefront of a nationwide discussion about whether reparations are owed to Black Americans, and if so, what form should they take.

Reparations initiatives around the nation

Reparation initiatives are also being discussed in other towns and cities including Amherst, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa, and Asheville, North Carolina, where city council members voted unanimously last year to provide reparations to Asheville's Black residents and descendants of former residents now deceased. A city council-approved reparations commission is expected to report between January 2022 and April 2023 with final recommendations on funding and implementation. 

In each of those cities, housing reparations are being specifically considered, whether in the form of assistance for homeowners or access to affordable housing.

"We may not be the exact model other cities will follow," said Simmons about Evanston's plans. "But, hopefully, we will inspire other cities to take the steps to dig into its history." 

Rayshawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the Brookings Institute who has written extensively about reparations, thinks that "it could be argued that housing is probably the main avenue where funding for reparations should go.”

Creating generational wealth

Owning a home, Ray said, has long been a way to create generational wealth for families. Many households use the equity in their homes to get lines of credit to purchase other properties, help pay for their kids' college tuition, and even buy stocks, Ray said.

“And many Black families don’t have that and have been left out that process, whether it’s from discrimination to redlining," Ray said, referring to decades of discrimination in housing and home refinancing.

►More than just money? Reparations is not about cutting a check. It's about repairing a community.

Though the federal government banned some racist housing practices during the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination of the sale, rental and financing of housing based on a person's race, religion, national origin, sex, Black owners still face practices that devalue their homes and diminish their potential wealth. 

That's according to an article co-written by Ray and Andre Perry, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute and a residence-in-scholar at American University. 

Homes in mostly Black neighborhoods are worth 23% less than homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with few or no Black residents, they say.

Assumptions about various factors, including housing and neighborhood quality, education and crime, result in homes in Black neighborhoods being undervalued by roughly $48,000 on average, which amounts to “a whopping $156 billion that these homeowners would have received if their homes were priced at market rates,” Perry and Ray say. 

Arguments can be made that reparations are also owed to African Americans for  biased criminal justice policies, education disparities and an ongoing lack of opportunities to own businesses.

“But, when it comes to municipalities, they know when it comes to housing they have some records clearly on file that show they discriminated against particular residents,” Perry said. 

In the national reckoning on racism that followed the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, municipalities "are tired of sitting on their hands and not doing anything,'' Perry said. "There's a whole generation of city leaders who refuse to let racism fester."

Evanston's choice

In March, the Evanston city council overwhelmingly voted to approve the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, which addresses racial discrimination in housing. It will grant qualifying households up to $25,000 that can be used for either down payments or home repairs.

The program is the first initiative of a citywide reparations fund created in 2019. The program also came a year after Evanston formed an Equity and Empowerment Commission and apologized for its history of discrimination.

In addition to being “a step towards revitalizing, preserving, and stabilizing ,” Black-owned homes, a city resolution about the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program said it will also attempt to increase homeownership,. 

Former Evanston, Ill., city council member Robin Rue Simmons, who sparked the conversation about reparations in the city in 2019, has become a national expert on the topic. Simmons also has created the Evanston Reparations Stakeholder Authority, a nonprofit that's seeking to raise money for reparations programs in Evanston independent of city officials.

More access to housing was one of the key drivers that led Simmons, then a member of Evanston's city council representing the mostly Black-populated Fifth Ward, to take action. She sent an email to the Equity and Empowerment Commission in February 2019. Her subject line was “Black Equality Policy,” but "it was really about reparations," she recalled, fearing that her colleagues weren't ready to talk about it.

However, four months later, the city council passed a resolution that called for ending structural racism and committing to racial equity. The resolution didn't mention how the city would do it and there was no mention of reparations. 

Despite pointing out there was a nearly $47,000 difference in median household income and a 13-year difference in life expectancy between Black and White Evanston residents, Simmons knew "that word, 'reparations'," would lead to uncomfortable conversations.

Yet Simmons said was ready for it and thought others eventually would be as well. 

"We decided not to wait and do what is right in our purview, and that's to make right the wrongs in the city of Evanston and lead by example with a resolution," Simmons said. 

In those first two commission meetings open to the public in July 2019, housing dominated the discussion, Simmons said. 

Robinson co-wrote a 77-page historical report commissioned by the city that chronicles Evanston's discriminatory practices, including in the areas of housing, education and policing. 

“They were the means by which legacies were limited and denied,” Robinson wrote. 

A document titled “Economic and Cultural Problems in Evanston, Ill., as they related to the colored population” is displayed at the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston. “I read between the lines,” said Morris “Dino” Robinson, who operates the center. “to me this is a study that shares how Black people were not welcomed in Evanston.”

Currently, $400,000 is being allotted for the housing program out of an initial $10 million reparations fund paid for by the city’s tax on the sale of recreational marijuana.

Black residents are eligible if they lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or are a direct descendant of someone who did, Robinson said. Those who don’t meet that criteria also may apply if they can prove they encountered housing discrimination because of city policies or practices after 1969, the year after the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act. 

“The qualifications are quite simple. "We have a collection of high school yearbooks dating back to 1919. You just have to prove you or a family member lived in Evanston,'' said Robinson, who helped provide the historical documentation of Evanston's housing discrimination for city officials.

Perry believes that despite the renewed interest in U.S. House bill HR 40, proposed federal legislation that could create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans, any reparation laws should likely come at the local and state level.

"It will be up to the municipal and state levels to create laws that will bubble up to Washington, and the knowledge gained from that will lead to a more comprehensive approach to deal with the systemic racism on many different levels," Perry said.

But William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University, who has spent decades researching what reparations could look like, thinks that what's occurring in cities can't be called reparations.

Instead, Darity, who has estimated that it would cost $10 trillion to $12 trillion to completely erase the Black-White wealth gap for approximately15 million Black households who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States, said the local actions should be referred to as "racial equity initiatives."

"States and localities should stop the pretense of conducting 'reparations' projects," Darity said. It's "fine if they want to undertake these initiatives, but please call them something else ...  They are not reparations."

Evanston city council member Cicely Fleming wrote in a USA TODAY opinion piece in July that "It's not the responsibility of states to repay the debt of chattel slavery; that falls to the federal government. But cash payments to Evanstonians for the wrongs of redlining and mortgage discrimination would have been more efficient, more equitable and a more accurate model of reparations than the city's current plan."

Darity said municipalities such as Evanston and Asheville, which committed $2.1 million toward funding reparations in June, don't have the funding available to make true reparations. 

"If Evanston were to try to close the racial wealth gap for its current Black residents who would be eligible for reparations, we estimate it would require an expenditure of $3.3 billion. Contrast that with the city’s current budget of approximately $300 million," Darity said.

Former Asheville city council member Keith Young, who crafted the city's reparations resolution, said it does not specifically mention direct cash settlements or deposits to descendants of slaves in the city. A payoff would let the city "off the hook," Young said, and that was not his intention.

"If you give everybody a check and the money's gone, it doesn't mean that people get to wash their hands of everything and there are no systemic issues anymore," Young said. 

Instead, Young said the resolution encourages "forming policy and programs that will establish the creation of generational wealth and address reparations due in the Black community." He's also hoping that local, state, federal and private donations will contribute to any funding.

Simmons remains committed to the reparations cause not only in Evanston but nationwide. After her one term on the Evanston City Council ended this year, she joined the nonprofit National African American Reparations Commission.  

Simmons said while there can be no real price tag on the cost for reparations, "we are trying to help communities heal. We can project the economic impact and ways to address the wealth gap, housing, health and education inequalities as well as hold our Congress accountable for the passage of HR 40 and the demand for reparations.

"But we have to start somewhere and reparations are a process," Simmons said. "An ongoing process."

It will never be perfect 

Compensation for centuries of injustice can be defined in a variety of ways, and it may take trial and error to determine what initiatives will have the biggest impact, Perry says.

"There’s no one form of reparation," he says, adding  that the U.S. is in the "very early stages" of such efforts and they should be judged over a 5- to 10-year stretch. 

"The first few programs will never be perfect,'' Perry said. "It is about taking a constructive approach to see the next iteration and the next." 

But the scholars, Robinson and Simmons all agree on this: Initially, there won't be enough reparation housing funding in Evanston to go around for eligible Black residents. Robinson said he already knows of a handful of households that plan to participate in the city's restorative housing program. 

"This has a chance to be very transformative," Robinson said.