Chicago suburb set to pay reparations, but not all on board

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Pedestrians walk past a sign in downtown Evanston, Ill., Friday, April 30, 2021. The Chicago suburb is preparing to pay reparations in the form of housing grants to Black residents who experienced housing discrimination. The city is being hailed as the first to do so, and is being held up as a model in its approach for other cities looking to do the same. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

EVANSTON, Ill. – When Teri Murray tried to buy her first home in 1968, searching this leafy college town for the perfect place, she thought she was an ideal candidate: married, steadily employed, ample savings.

But banks rejected her, giving dubious excuses that they had stopped offering loans or the application period had closed.

At 76, Murray now realizes those experiences were common for Black residents like her who faced decades of racist housing practices designed to stymie homeownership or force them to live in certain areas.

“Whatever reasons they gave us, I completely bought it,” said Murray, who eventually purchased the Evanston property where she lives. “I was discriminated against and didn’t know it.”

Now her community is trying to make amends as the first American city to pay reparations. Acknowledging past racist policies, Evanston is giving eligible Black residents $25,000 housing grants for down payments, repairs or existing mortgages this year. Although the approach is considered a model and homeowners like Murray 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 had to create ordinances and laws that said we are committed to inclusion in a tangible way, not just in a sign, not just in a resolution, but with our budget,” said Simmons, who represents the predominantly Black 5th Ward.

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.