In a striking reversal from their normal role of defending the city against lawsuits, the City of Evanston’s legal staff is trying to gather evidence to prove that the city deprived its Black residents of equal access to housing.

The effort has been launched as the city develops a proposal to provide up to $25,000 in the form of a forgivable loan toward the purchase of a home to any Black resident who can show that he or she suffered discrimination in housing as a result of a city ordinance, policy or practice.

The proposal, developed for the city’s Reparations Subcommittee, would offer the same benefit to anyone who’s a “direct relative” of a Black resident who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 and suffered similar discrimination.

At Monday’s City Council meeting Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, questioned whether the proposal could withstand legal challenges that might claim it amounted to reverse discrimination.

City Attorney Kelley Gandurski said that the policy could be justified legally if it could be tied to a specific action by the city regarding housing that discriminated against Black residents and the housing-related compensation would try to correct the specific wrong that was done.

But Gandurski said the city’s legal staff is still in the process of researching the city’s historical records to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of discrimination.

Deputy City Attorney Nicholas Cummings, who has been advising the Reparations Subcommittee, declined to discuss with Evanston Now what he may have found in his research so far.

But he told the Reparations Subcommmittee on Friday that the time period 1919 to 1969 was chosen because 1919 was when the city started drafting its first zoning ordinance and 1969 was the year the city adopted its second ordinance barring housing discrimination.

At Thursday’s Equity and Empowerment Committee meeting, Acting Assistant City Manager Kimberly Richardson suggested there may be difficulty finding proof of discriminatory intent in old city records.

“I can tell you the City Council members did not put their racism on paper,” Richardson said, “It’s really hard to find an actual document that has a citation on it. But you can see the practice, and that tells the story, it’s very much implicit in some of the decisions.”

Limiting the scope of discrimination to the city’s own actions means that the bulk of the factors widely acknowledged to account for housing discrimination won’t count — because they didn’t involve the city.

Restrictive covenants entered into by private landowners, redlining by lenders backed by policies established by the federal government or steering by real estate brokers — none of those activities involved city actions.

But, as Monday’s discussion of reparations was ending, Mayor Steve Hagerty suggested there could be another solution — that “some elements in the community” would be willing to contribute to a fund for housing reparations voluntarily, to provide funds beyond the money the city hopes to generate from the cannabis tax.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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