Social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson grew up in the Greater Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. It’s the same neighborhood where her grandmother purchased a two-flat brick building after moving here during the Great Migration and where Johnson now owns a home. Johnson started noticing inequities in the city during her commute from Englewood to a selective magnet school on Chicago’s north side. Englewood had more vacant lots and boarded up decaying buildings compared to the north. In her current role as the National Public Housing Museum’s Artist-as-Instigator, she is using art to bring awareness to the predatory lending practiced in Greater Englewood during the ‘50s and ‘60s that has driven present-day inequities in the city.
According to a 2019 Duke study, land sale contracts robbed Chicago’s black community of $3.2 to 4 billion in the 1950s and ‘60s. 75 to 95 percent of homes sold to Black families in Chicago during this time were sold through land sale contracts. It was this report that inspired Johnson’s latest exhibit Inequity for Sale. “How [land sale contracts] changed the trajectory of the entire neighborhood was something I wanted to really show. Because these homes still exist, whether they were demolished and are now vacant lots,” Johnson says. “That was our direct connection to this past.”
Simply put, a land sale contract is a mechanism of purchasing a home with installment plans that aren’t amortized. As a consequence, families are not building equity with each monthly payment. One missed or late payment puts a family at risk of not only losing their home but everything they’ve already invested in it. Many Black families were denied conventional loans by banks, which meant they relied on these land sale contracts to purchase homes. Often speculators would buy these homes, then mark up the price by 84 percent on average before selling them on contract to Black families, according to the Duke study.
As part of the exhibit, Johnson places yellow and black “landmarkers” outside several former homes purchased through land sale contracts. The round signs include the dates the sale took place and the names of the former owners, for instance, “This home at 6823 S. Aberdeen was legally stolen from Black couple Mr. and Mrs. James and Lula Malone on October 30, 1963, in a widespread land sale contract scam.” The first two were installed in mid-February. Along with Tiff Beatty, the Program Director of Arts, Culture, and Public Policy at the National Public Housing Museum, Johnson also created a three-part podcast called Legally Stolen. The podcast explores how the practice contributed to low homeownership rates in Greater Englewood. The two have interviewed housing experts including Amber Hendley, Athena Williams, Beryl Satter, and Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law. A website documents the homes and stories of residents.
The city supports the exhibition and the National Public Housing Museum has engaged local policymakers and residents through community events. In April 2021, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events awarded the project one of five $100,000 grants through its Artist Response Program. Community members, collaborators, and local city council members leading a reparations subcommittee launched the project collaboratively through a virtual public hearing. “We are linking this art and culture to public policy to try to reimagine the future of housing and of communities,” Beatty says.
For Johnson, the project has been a mechanism for countering pervasive narratives about Greater Englewood. “People only know [Englewood] as a crime-ridden, poor, predominantly Black neighborhood when that isn’t how it started. That isn’t the total history of it,” says Johnson. “[Land sale contracts] have contributed to the devaluation of Greater Englewood and why it’s so difficult for us to have an increased rate of homeownership.” Her past work, Folded Map Project, connected residents who live in homes at corresponding addresses on opposite sides of Chicago to examine how segregation impacts their lives.
The exhibit isn’t just about educating the public but Johnson documents these practices to push for recompense and reparations. “These homes and vacant lots are actual evidence of what I call a crime that was never brought to justice,” Johnson says. “It’s one thing to have a report. It’s another thing to have the actual photos and addresses of the homes that were part of this.”
Tonika Johnson hopes her art will help put aspiring homeowners into homes. (Photo: Tonika Johnson/National Public Housing Museum)
For Johnson and Beatty, recompense could happen in many ways. “There can be a program for homeownership in these historically disinvested neighborhoods that were decimated because of land sale contracts,” Johnson says. Or, “the descendants of the people who had the homes on land sale contracts can be contacted and paid outright for what was stolen from their family in today’s dollars.” Given the data available from the Duke study, the city could even provide city-owned properties below market rate as compensation, Johnson suggests.
Ultimately, the two hope that any form of recompense will put aspiring homeowners into homes. “This is what poor communities and communities of color have been asking for since the beginning, which is just development without displacement,” says Beatty. “It’s very rare, and it takes a lot of different stakeholders to make that happen, but I think [the exhibit] is one piece of a large puzzle of what it takes to make these communities stable and redress the past.”
Johnson has seen some pushback. One resident took down the landmarker in front of his home on S. Aberdeen after neighbors asked if he had really stolen the property. For future landmarkers placed in front of privately owned homes, Johnson is considering adding the speculator’s name to clarify this history. However, she welcomes the criticism. “The incident of the owner taking down the sign helped elevate the complexity of this history because this home is part of the cycle of perpetuating the devaluation of other homeowners on that block,” Johnson says.
Johnson plans to install additional landmarkers around Englewood in late spring. Once they are installed, the museum wants to host tours and events to commemorate these homes and what was stolen. It also hopes to partner with local Chicago historians. In April, the museum will collaborate with NPR affiliate WBEZ to host a public event in Englewood to continue educating the public.
The exhibit is a test of how art can acknowledge, create awareness for, and ultimately bring justice to predatory housing practices. “To define what justice could be, people have to know the many ways people were taken advantage of,” Johnson says. “Because we are still such a segregated city, sadly, we are the perfect example or case study of how this period in history still affects a neighborhood, families, and a city today.”
Mia Jackson is a master's student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Her writing about cities, health and innovation has appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Virginian-Pilot and elsewhere.