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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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2 Comments

  1. Why didn’t they research the legality earlier?
    This is so ridiculous. Skeptics have been saying for MONTHS that the city needs to work out the legality of any reparations scheme at the outset.
    Instead, they established a subcommittee that had a bunch of meetings that spoke nothing about specific policies. And once they come up with one, they are not sure if it is legal or not.

    The proper way this should have worked is to have first identified specific policies that the city instituted to perpetuate slavery and civil rights violations of African American residents.

    Once those policies are identified, the next step is to determine the extent of damage stemming from those policies.

    The third step is to identify WHO were affected by the policies and HOW they can be compensated.

    What we did instead was to have a bunch of meetings, identify a policy related to housing affordability, and then (now) try and figure out a legal justification for it.

    It is just crazy. But I guess it is good that they are trying to avoid litigation so it is better than implementing a clearly unconstitutional policy and waiting to battle it in the courts.

    I think this was poorly handled by Rue-Simmons, Fleming, and other reparations activists.

    Let’s be clear: structural racism exists. I actually support reparations.

    But reparations as a policy initiative is probably not the most effective way to deal with structural racism.

    These people set up a whole bunch of expectations for citizens who may be expecting checks or direct cash assistance (like occurred with reparations for Japanese internment camp victims). Sadly, these people are going to be sorely disappointed.

    1. My multiple efforts to convince City to do research first

      I completely agree with Testflo’s comment.  I tried to convince the City of the folly of engaging in a backwards “research-last” process regarding reparations from January through March.  I wrote multiple emails encouraging doing reparations legal resarch first to:  Mayor Hagerty, all nine aldermen, Kimberly Richardson (City Manager’s Office), Nicholas Cummings (Law Department), the Reparations Subcommittee (Alds. Rainey, Simmons and Braithewaite).  Few of these recipients even had the courtesy to respond to my communications, let alone address my substantive point about legal research.

      Since no reparations schemes exist in the U.S. at the federal, state, or municipal level, I would like to know how the conclusion was reached by the Law Department that the $25,000 forgivable housing loan program will be upheld in court.  I would also like to know how potential recipients are supposed to prove that they or their ancestors were the victims of housing discrimination by the City.  What documents will they be expected to produce?   Where will they find these documents?

      Reparations is a very complex and multifaceted issue which received very shallow treatment in Evanston.  Perhaps that is why Dr. William Darity, an African-American professor at Duke University who is a leading scholar on reparations, told me squarely that he is not in favor of reparations at the municipal level.

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