Excerpted From: Erica Witter, Making Amends: Localizing and Implementing Housing Reparation Programs for African Americans Affected by Discriminatory Housing Policies, 15 Drexel Law Review 509 (2023) (271 Footnotes) (Full Document)


EricaWitterHousing discrimination can take many forms. For instance, in 1912, Los Angeles residents Charles and Willa Bruce purchased two beachfront lots for $1,225 and eventually added additional lots to create a private resort for African Americans. The Bruces faced constant harassment and racism until the city condemned the property using its taking powers, known as eminent domain. Though the city claimed it used eminent domain to convert the property into a park, the “land [remained] unused for years until it was transferred to the state.” The state then reinstated ownership to Los Angeles County to be used as a beach. Eventually, in what has been called a “reparations milestone,” the state of California returned the property to descendants of the original owners.

A larger problem exists in home loans and mortgage lending, illustrated by Beatrice Barker's situation in Pennsylvania in the 1990s. Beatrice Barker needed a $10,000 loan for home improvements. After contacting a credit agency, she ended up with a loan for $19,500 with a 10% total loan amount fee, a balloon note, and a mortgage refinance that took her original 9% interest rate and nearly doubled it. To further aggravate the injury, Barker was not authorized to receive more than $1,950 in cash for her home improvements.

The examples of housing discrimination described above, and many similar instances, contribute to the wealth gap between African Americans and whites. Furthermore, “[g]aps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity.” “Reparations” is defined as making amends for a wrong done, either by paying money or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. It can come in many shapes and forms, and often seeks to address a harm done to an individual or community. More importantly, reparations “are meant to give assurance to survivors that the injustices they have endured ‘will not be repeated in the future.”’ Reparations require accountability, acknowledgement, and assurance that perpetuated harms will stop and be rectified. Simply put, reparations address systematic harms that stem from human rights violations. They entail a guarantee of non-repetition, restitution and repatriation, compensation, satisfaction, and rehabilitation.

African Americans are entitled to reparations because the United States' rise in power, status, and wealth was largely gained by the exploitation of enslaved African labor. The exportation of cotton and tobacco created substantial wealth for the States, but enslaved Africans were brutalized, exploited, and commoditized like animals in return. It is estimated that between 1776 and 1865, “uncompensated labor totaled between USD $5.9 and $14.2 trillion in current dollars.” Following slavery and the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, structural discrimination, and “exclusion from employment, housing, institutions, and communities [which] continues to this day” targeted African Americans.

This Note joins a group of scholars who argue that the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans can be remedied, in part, by legislation aimed at repairing the economic harm done to African American communities. It does so by focusing on a specific city--Philadelphia, Pennsylvania--that exemplifies the results of discriminatory housing practices. Analyzing the issues and benefits of a reparations initiative in Evanston, Illinois's Restorative Housing Program and applying it to Philadelphia helps conceptualize the benefits and challenges for reparations in other jurisdictions while providing a framework for a national program. While this Note focuses on reparations for discriminatory housing practices that contribute to the African American-white wealth gap on the municipal level, state initiatives can provide additional assistance to extend the reach of harms that reparations can address.

A few cities and institutions have implemented or encouraged some type of reparations program in response to multiple laws aimed at disparaging African American communities post-slavery. Cities in Illinois, North Carolina, and California have all instituted reparations programs aimed at repairing the substantial harm to African American communities. This Note argues that Philadelphia should develop and implement reparation programs, available to past and current Philadelphia residents who were affected by discriminatory housing practices that hindered economic progress in African American communities.

Philadelphia is a helpful model because it has a large African American population and an extensive history of housing discrimination. Philadelphia consistently ranks as one of the poorest cities in the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how detrimental the housing crisis is on African American residents. Philadelphia's housing crisis stems from segregation and Jim Crow laws and has yet to be sufficiently acknowledged or remedied. Part I outlines why local jurisdictions are an ideal forum to institute reparations, the history of redlining, and other discriminatory lending practices. Part I also discusses the laws that were drafted to outlaw these practices, and how lenders were able to continue discriminating against minority communities notwithstanding those laws. Part I concludes by describing why Philadelphia should consider reparations for housing discrimination as a remedy to the wealth gap between its Black and white residents. Part II describes how reparations can remedy some of the problems embedded within many African American communities and then focuses on various local and state efforts to provide reparations. Specifically, this Part focuses on legislation passed in other states that attempt to rectify specific acts of injustice or implement reparative programs to redistribute wealth into African American communities. Finally, this Note concludes by acknowledging the potential challenges and benefits of reparative programs in Philadelphia while acknowledging the potential for federal reparations in the future.

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There are many limitations and challenges that can arise with providing reparations on a local and national scale. As Evanston's Mayor pointed out, reparations will be a complex and constantly changing issue that must be addressed. It is an overwhelming challenge because systematic oppression continued well after the end of slavery, so the impact is much greater and affects multiple generations of African Americans. However, the longer the United States waits to act, the more daunting reparations will be. States and localities should look to and expand upon Evanston's Restorative Housing Program to begin remedying the impact of systematic discrimination in housing markets. The wealth gap between African and white Americans continues to grow because of the harms that were done to African American communities, especially in homeownership. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reparations, and jurisdictions must be flexible and open to community input. Because discrimination in housing happened at all levels of government, reparations is not solely a national issue. Just as the federal government must address its complicity in white supremacy, states and localities must aid in remedying the harms it allowed upon its African American residents.

J.D. Candidate, 2023, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.