In one part of Illinois, a city council approved reparations for Black Evanston residents historically shafted in the community, making the city the first in the nation to approve such a proposal. In another part of the state, a county tax commissioner took closing the wealth gap between people of color and white residents into her own hands by using an outreach team to contact homeowners who are behind on their property taxes before their land is stripped for them. Both cases are inspiring examples of just how much city officials can accomplish when they actually prioritize the needs of all their constituents, not only the white ones.
“We talk about education,” Evanston Alderwoman Carrie Austin said during a hearing the Chicago Sun-Times covered earlier this month. “We talk about health. We talk about employment. We talk about everything. But nothing is moving. I want to know when will something start to move? When will something actually change? That’s what I want to see. … I don’t want to leave this council and we’re still talking about the same thing. I’ve been here 26 years. We’re still talking. I want to see action.” In Illinois, she is getting her wish in more ways than one.
The Evanston City Council's plan is to allocate $400,000 to its Black residents with links to the community that date back to between 1919 and 1969. The money can be used to purchase homes, renovate homes, or pay mortgage bills, according to the city. Those who were slighted by discriminatory housing policies after 1969 are also eligible to receive the funding, the Sun-Times reported. Evanston resident Cherie Adams told the newspaper she's "disturbed" that the plan, approved in an 8-1 vote, attracted so much opposition. "This is not reparations for the country and chattel slavery,” she said. “It’s just a way for the city to recognize that there were discrepancies in housing, and this is a way that we can give back into the Black community.”
Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas took a different route, instead prioritizing Black and Latino homeowners who are behind in paying property tax debts and educating them about tax exemptions to reduce their tax bills. Her program, “Black Houses Matter,” which is also referred to as “Black and Latino Houses Matter,” has returned $49 million to homeowners, she told Rolling Out magazine.
“I’ve been sitting in this office for 20 years and I’ve watched home after home get sold,” Pappas told the magazine. “When I came into this office there were 327 African American churches on the tax sale list about to be sold. With the help of every reverend in this town, today there’s not one African American church on that list.”
Pappas told Rolling Out CEO Munson Steed that oftentimes the indebted homeowners are senior citizens who aren't aware of tax exemptions they qualify for. She gave the example of a woman with dementia who was on the tax sale list but actually has a son who’s a lawyer in Mississippi. Pappas said through her research team she was able to track down the son, who didn’t know his mother was on the tax sale list. Through exemptions she’s eligible for, the county ended up owing her $2,000. “It's like this tree that branches out and gives you emails and phone numbers of all these people around the country (...) This lady who has dementia would have been in the street,” Pappas said.
She described a broken system relying on mailed notifications that plays out over years, and often ends in the homeowner having property sold from under them because of minimal tax debts. In one alderman's ward on Chicago's West Side, 28 houses are being sold for less than $1,000. "So that's not even $50,000, and we are throwing 40 people out," Pappas said.
She explained that a tax buyer buys the property for the cost of the unpaid taxes, and the homeowner gets a redemption notice that it's been sold. “Really? Do you think she went to the door to get that piece of mail from the mailman, who probably never showed up there anyway, just said I tried to deliver it?” Pappas asked. It only takes three attempts to inform the homeowner for the process to be turned over to the courts and property to be classified as abandoned. Two years later, a judge allows the property sale, and the same process that didn’t work before restarts again, often ending in a red notice informing the homeowner of the sale of the home, Pappas said. “So what happens? Two years later, the sheriff shows up because they served her,” she said. “See, they don't ask you if they served somebody and the person who got served understands it. They just say, 'you delivered it, Munson.'" The homeowner, who in some cases is wheelchair-bound and unable to get mail, is forced to leave, “and it happens again and again and again,” Pappas said. Her program intercedes by diligently searching to find indebted homeowners and their relatives, educating them about their options, and resolving the debts.
The Chicago Crusader, Chicago's oldest weekly newspaper focusing on Black communities, identified 1,068 delinquent properties in majority-white wards, 2,812 in majority-Latino wards, and 12,701 in majority-Black wards. "Blacks in Chicago and the nation worked in some of the hardest hit industries before the pandemic struck one year ago," writer Erick Johnson wrote. "Many have been unable to return to work as most of the economy remains shut down."
Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood on Chicago's South Side, told the Chicago Tribune she's happy the treasurer can look at her data "from an equity lens." “It’s not surprising that once again, African Americans who achieve homeownership are faced up against some things that we don’t even know what the situation might be,” Butler said. “The information on exemptions is not being filtered to our homeowners. Some sort of disconnect is happening. I learned about it and thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got to say something about this.’”
The disconnect Butler described leads to the kind of disparity that Black communities across the nation are all too familiar with. The Brookings Institution, a research think tank, published an analysis last year examining the wealth gap between Black and white Americans. The typical white family brought in $171,000, almost 10 times what the average Black family earned in 2016, the institute reported. It laid out centuries-long reasonings of why that gap exists:
Efforts by Black Americans to build wealth can be traced back throughout American history. But these efforts have been impeded in a host of ways, beginning with 246 years of chattel slavery and followed by Congressional mismanagement of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (which left 61,144 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million in 1874), the violent massacre decimating Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 (a population of 10,000 that thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street”), and discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century including the Jim Crow Era’s “Black Codes” strictly limiting opportunity in many southern states, the GI bill, the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption of domestic agricultural and service occupations, and redlining. Wealth was taken from these communities before it had the opportunity to grow.
When land and property is stripped from communities of color, it cuts them out of the wealth-generating benefits of gentrification and often leads to unaffordable housing options in major cities. Black mothers and other protesters calling for more affordable housing in the Bay Area rallied around six homeless women who refused to leave a vacant Oakland property they were evicted from in November 2019. Carroll Fife, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and the women of Mothers 4 Housing were asking the Wedgewood real-estate firm and other companies like it to sell property to land trusts so that houses remain permanently affordable for the working class “in perpetuity.” “And that is not in the interest of a multimillion-dollar corporation that’s in the business of making profit off what should not be a commodity,” Fife said.
RELATED: Racist dog whistle sounded to justify having homeless moms stormed, evicted from vacant Oakland home