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Santa Monica, Calif., aims to welcome back historically displaced Black families

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week Santa Monica launched an effort to make amends with families whose homes were bulldozed to make way for the city's namesake freeway and its civic center. This Right to Return Program now aims to connect 100 families displaced more than a half century ago or their descendants with affordable housing in Santa Monica.

Last summer we reported a story about the Santa Monica Freeway, the westernmost stretch of Interstate 10, which slices from east to west across Los Angeles. We studied the neighborhoods it destroyed, like upscale Sugar Hill, one of the few places where Black Angelenos could actually own property during the 1940s and '50s. Rha and Van Nickerson are siblings who remember an idyllic childhood in Sugar Hill, and then...

RHA NICKERSON: Suddenly I remember my father telling his family that of the plans of the freeway coming through and how upsetting it was because our community was destroyed. And it still has, even to this day, effects on us today.

VAN NICKERSON: That set the path for how things would become for our family.

CHANG: The Nickersons, whom you just heard from, do not qualify for this new affordable housing program because their family home was not within the city limits of Santa Monica. But they tell us they are both facing unstable housing conditions right now.

R NICKERSON: Currently, my living situation is dangerously wanting to oust me out on the street. I'm very, very interested in any kind of help I can receive.

V NICKERSON: I just wish that the powers that be in Santa Monica would somehow spread their magic to the city of LA...

R NICKERSON: Yeah.

V NICKERSON: ...So we can benefit.

CHANG: Well, we wanted to talk to one of those powers that be in Santa Monica about how this program came about and its goals for the future. Santa Monica City Council member Kristin McCowan helped start the new program, and she joins us now. Welcome.

KRISTIN MCCOWAN: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so how did this program come into being?

MCCOWAN: So we knew that Santa Monica had allowed the 10 Freeway to come through. We knew that we had displaced people. And when folks in the community were starting to raise issues of displacement and eminent domain, we knew that we weren't necessarily going to be able to turn land back over or - to people that were displaced. But we knew we had an affordable housing program. We knew that California was in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and we thought there was a way that we could do something immediate to give people an opportunity to return to Santa Monica.

CHANG: OK. So I understand that hundreds of families qualify, and I'm just curious. How do they prove that they qualify?

MCCOWAN: Yeah. So that's the tricky thing, right? And we acknowledge and understood that this was going to be much harder than, please hand over your former deed. We're talking about, in some cases, people who might be two generations removed from the person who lived here at the time that they were forced out of their home. We know that some people may just have a photograph of a grandparent standing in front of a home with a street intersection in the background. Or they may have an old immunization record from a pediatrician that they saw that listed their home - former home address. And so we're trying to give people as much opportunity as possible.

CHANG: Well, one reason we were very interested in talking to you specifically is because I understand that your family bought a home in the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica, which the 10 Freeway now runs through. Your family home was spared, but how personal does this program feel to you?

MCCOWAN: So it's really personal. I mean, I grew up with these stories. So my father was born in Santa Monica in 1946. He grew up about one city block from what is now the 10 Freeway. So my family, my father, his 11 siblings and his parents were spared. And they were able to live in that home and continue going to school and continue living in this community. I also recognize that that freeway took away people's livelihoods.

But in now almost two years that I've had the privilege to sit on the city council here in Santa Monica, just my presence and my voice can make a difference for future Santa Monicans and former Santa Monicans that want to now return to Santa Monica. And that is a responsibility I take very seriously, and it's never lost on me that this is my truth and my history and my past. But, again, there are some whose is much, much more difficult and traumatic than my own. And I think my entire council - our hope is that we do justice to those folks to the extent that we can.

CHANG: You say, to do justice to the extent you can. Because this program has gotten some criticism from those who say it just doesn't go far enough, we spoke with a historian, Alison Rose Jefferson, and here's what she had to say about the program.

ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON: They should be offering them mortgage assistance. They were pushing those people out and inhibiting their social mobility.

CHANG: What do you think? Do you think this program does go far enough?

MCCOWAN: It absolutely does not go far enough, and I appreciate what Dr. Jefferson is saying. I appreciate what many people have said in criticizing the program. But the reality is we are starting somewhere, which is a lot more than I can say for probably thousands of communities throughout this country. And we acknowledge that we want to get to a point where we can potentially provide mortgage assistance, where we can give people access to actual land ownership in the city. But right now in the midst of COVID, this was a way that we could offer a new opportunity, potentially, to some that are struggling in their current housing.

CHANG: Do you hope that one day this program can serve as some kind of local or national model, one that might benefit, say, the Nickersons, the siblings that we heard earlier?

MCCOWAN: I would love to see that. I think if we can be a model for you, one, acknowledging what mistakes your community has made in the past and then saying, what can I do today immediately to potentially change someone's life, that's what I hope it inspires for others. And to people who, you know, deserve more - and they are right - and want more than just an acknowledgement, to that, I'd say we are at the beginning. And we are starting somewhere, and we want to look at how we can do better.

CHANG: That is Santa Monica City Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan. Thank you very much for joining us.

MCCOWAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIDOWSPEAK SONG, "NARROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.