Cities Experiment With Restitutive Housing Programs. Do They Advance Reparations?

By Jesse Fairbanks

Two U.S. cities—Santa Monica, CA and Evanston, IL—recently achieved important milestones in their plans to compensate Black residents whose ancestors were directly harmed by racist housing and land use policies. These programs are noteworthy because they move beyond acknowledging past harm and toward restitution. As other localities look to these programs as models, it’s important for lawmakers, program administrators, and advocates to remember that people impacted by past harm are the only ones who have the authority to define reparations. Therefore, Black residents must be involved in designing these programs from the start.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the programs.

  • Santa Monica, CA – The Right to Return Program claims to redress the City’s abuse of eminent domain in the 1950s and 60s to construct a convention center and the I-10 freeway. City officials displaced thousands of Black and Latinx households in the Belmar Triangle and Pico neighborhoods. Importantly, this housing program piggybacks off one that already exists: the City’s Below Market Housing (BMH) Program. BMH matches people with low-to-middle incomes with apartments where the rents are below market rate. However, BMH has far fewer slots than needed to serve all eligible households. Therefore, under the Right to Return Program, households will receive priority if they meet BMH’s income requirements and include “a formerly displaced resident or a child or grandchild of someone who was formerly displaced.” Santa Monica has capped applications at 100, though an estimated 2,000-2,500 people were affected by the City’s demolition.
  • Evanston, IL – The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program claims to redress 50 years of housing discrimination by offering Black residents up to $25,000 for down payments, mortgages, or home repairs. All Black residents who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969—or who are direct descendants of someone who did—were eligible for the program. But, only sixteen of the 600+ applicants were chosen in a lottery. With a total budget of $400,000, this housing program was the first initiative launched through the City’s $10 million reparations fund.

Both programs decided not to give residents direct payments and, instead, focus on affordable housing. Both programs also named exclusionary zoning and urban renewal as overt ways their local government tanked the Black homeownership rate and entrenched segregation. However, these two programs differ significantly.

In Evanston, the list of harms that the housing program hopes to rectify spans 50 years. Its designers record exclusionary zoning ordinances; home demolition led by the Evanston’s Land Clearance Commission; and complicity in the face of racist practices from banks, the real estate industry, and federal government among the  City’s primary offenses. In contrast, Santa Monica chose to atone for a specific series of eminent domain abuses that alienated neighborhoods and displaced thousands of people. Activists in other cities like Lansing, MI and Linnentown, GA are demanding reparations for similar eminent domain abuses.

In Santa Monica, unlike Evanston, the Right to Return Program will not increase the number of Black or Latinx people who own property because it relies on the private rental market. However, more people will be able to participate than in Evanston’s housing program, which reaches as little as 1 percent of the city’s total Black population.

For the first time in U.S. history, lawmakers are not mocking demands from grassroots organizers for reparations: local governments are thinking critically about their contribution to racist inequities in homeownership and wealth. They are experimenting with ways to compensate descendants. But the people who design these programs and the administrators who run them cannot claim to deliver reparations without clear, unwavering affirmation from Black people in the community.

Reparations is not a word that we can afford to dilute.

The only people capable of assessing whether these programs have atoned for the emotional, mental, physical, and financial damage caused by their cities’ history of anti-Black housing and land use policies are the direct descendants of Black residents—including eligible people whose compensation will be delayed or, because of a lack of funding, never come.

Santa Monica, CA; Evanston, IL; and other cities interested in delivering local reparations must invest in a process for eligible people to review their programs’ performance. Meaningful feedback loops are necessary for improving programs that help people meet their basic needs. The same is true for programs that compensate people who have experienced displacement or its intergenerational impacts.

But governments can’t stop there. Moving forward, Black residents must be the lead designers of local and national reparations programs. Activists in CA and IL have already expressed concern that their cities’ housing programs benefit banks and landlords more than Black residents. At every stage of the policymaking process, governments must partner with Black activists and Black-led organizations in their jurisdictions to design restitutive programs that represent descendants’ vision.

These local programs are far from a substitute for what the federal government owes the descendants of people who were enslaved. Scholars estimate that the racial wealth gap is at least 11 trillion dollars, and the pilots in CA and IL pay less than .001 percent of that debt. At the same time, the movement for universal basic income (UBI) has taught us that local pilot programs can popularize bold ideas that are aligned with grassroots demands, and, in turn, pressure lawmakers to make better federal policy. For example, the Magnolia Mothers Trust—a UBI program that served Black mothers in Jackson, MI—shaped the Child Tax Credit (CTC), showing lawmakers how important it is for public benefits to center human dignity, deservedness, and autonomy.

Pilot programs like those in Evanston and Santa Monica prove that governments can acknowledge how they have perpetuated racism and take actions toward restitution. At the local, state, and federal level, leaders must build on these lessons, partnering with Black communities to imagine and craft effective reparations programs that serve all people who were harmed by anti-Black policies.