The Associated Press
Created: May 06, 2021 04:33 PM
Jo-Ann Cromer doesn't trust her city's white officials to have her best interests -- or those of her fellow Black residents -- at heart.
The 78-year-old had seen how her parents had struggled on their path to homeownership in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Banks would not give the Black couple a loan, offering dubious excuses that they had stopped offering loans or the application period had closed. Decades later, Cromer's younger sister had the same struggle, as did many other Black residents in the city.
So when a proposal was introduced to address the city's past racist policies through a reparations program, she was skeptical it would pass.
Now her community is trying to make amends as the first American city to pay reparations. Acknowledging those past racist policies, Evanston is giving eligible Black residents $25,000 housing grants for down payments, repairs or existing mortgages this year.
Cromer refinanced the home her parents bought in 2011, and is looking to apply to the program, in hopes of putting the money toward her mortgage.
Although the approach is considered a model and homeowners like Cromer and her sister are ready to apply, some Black residents say the effort falls short and true atonement hasn't begun.
The idea of reparations wasn't a hard sell in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of about 74,000 that's known for liberal activism, intellectual discourse and Northwestern University. Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons, a fourth generation Black resident, spearheaded the effort after studying racial disparity data, which shows the average income of Black families in Evanston is $46,000 less than white families.
"We're very segregated racially, and that is historic, it is systemic, it's structural, and it is intentional anti-Black practices that have carried on, although they've been outlawed, they've carried on today, said Simmons, who represents the predominantly Black 5th Ward.
"For us to continue year after year after year, to have this racial disparity without doing something radically different was unacceptable. And in that moment, I introduced reparations," she said.
Last summer's reckoning over racial injustice revived interest in reparations in communities across the country, including the state of California and cities like Chicago; Amherst, Massachusetts; Asheville, North Carolina; and Iowa City, Iowa. Federal legislation for a commission has also gained traction.
But not everyone is on board.
Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, who voted against the grants, said she supports reparations but Evanston's effort isn't that. Instead of giving money to banks, direct cash payments would give Black people power in deciding how they need repair, she said.
"The bank continues to be the largest beneficiary and perpetrator of housing discrimination," said Fleming, who's Black. "It really lays under the guise of a narrative that poor and/or African American people don't know how to manage their money. Therefore, when the government gives them money, there are lots of parameters on how they can use it."
Still, those involved say Evanston has been introspective.
"It's a lot, a lot of work, and be prepared for pulling back old wounds, telling truth, gaining the trust," said local historian Morris "Dino" Robinson Jr., who co-authored a city-commissioned study on housing practices.
The program will provide 16 grants the first year, with money from a reparations fund created in 2019 with legal marijuana taxes. To qualify, Black applicants must have lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or be a direct descendent of someone who did. They must show proof, like a deed, and reside in Evanston currently.
The hope is to boost Black homeownership, increase property values and draw residents back. Evanston's Black population dropped to under 17% in 2017 from more than 22% in 2000.
Evanston's first Black residents came during the Great Migration, many finding plentiful domestic and service jobs. By 1940, the Black population was over 6,000, Illinois' largest outside Chicago, according to the report. Most were concentrated in a triangular area, which is today's 5th Ward.
Some racist practices were informal: Real estate agents would steer Black families to certain areas and banks denied loans, making predatory financing pervasive. Other practices were law: A 1921 zoning ordinance converted areas where Black families lived to industrial, forcing them out.
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