A land marker placed in front of a south-side home as part of the public component of Inequity for Sale. Credit: Courtesy Purpose Brand

The greater Englewood area has been subject to land theft for over 80 years. It’s apparent when you see boarded-up windows and overgrown weeds that cover the community. Empty houses abound, a legacy of the impact that racism has had on the area for years, vacant lots indicating opportunities withheld from aspiring Black homeowners. It’s a crime that Chicago’s Tonika Lewis Johnson, activist, artist, and the National Public Housing Museum’s 2021 resident Artist-as-Instigator, seeks to expose with her project Inequity for Sale.

“In my lifetime, I witnessed disparity get worse and worse in Englewood,” Johnson told me. “I wanted to visualize that by putting land markers in front of homes impacted by land sale contracts . . . over 200 houses sold under land sale contracts are now abandoned or just empty lots.” 

Inequity for Sale aims to highlight the negative impact that land sale contracts have had on the greater Englewood area. After learning about the contracts at a community meeting hosted by the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), a community-driven activist organization, Johnson became interested in the idea of visualizing the impact that land sale contracts had on the area through a public art project.

“The actual idea for Inequity for Sale was inspired by a 2019 Duke University report [The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts] that people forwarded to me,” says Johnson. “I linked up with Amber Hendley, one of the researchers on that report, and she gave our community members a map of all the homes sold in Englewood through land sale contracts, which prompted the idea.” 

Inequity for Sale looks at the myriad racist housing-market practices that Black homeowners have historically faced. Land sale contracts were offered to Black homebuyers on the south and west sides throughout the 1950s and ’60s in lieu of traditional mortgages, and often resulted in the potential buyer paying high monthly rates but never actually owning the home. 

After Hendley showed residents a map dotted with homes sold to homeowners through the unethical practice of land sale contracts, Johnson went to work putting together what would become a significant aspect of Inequity for Sale. Tracking down homes on the map, Johnson began to focus on creating land markers for specific homes impacted by the contracts. The markers, some of which are already set up in public, include information on the family that once lived there to honor the legacy of previous homeowners. 

Johnson hopes providing these physical land markers will make people realize how deeply these land sale contracts impacted the community. 

Tonika Lewis Johnson Credit: Courtesy Purpose Brand

“I took a collection of addresses to create landmarks for and focused on houses within a four- to five-block radius,” says Johnson. “The families who had land stolen from them ultimately affected everyone, not only the people in this neighborhood.” 

Picking up steam after Johnson was selected for a residency with the National Public Housing Museum in 2019, the project has been underway for over three years now. Johnson partnered with Tiff Beatty, the museum’s program director of arts, culture, and public policy, and the two began to plan what would become Inequity for Sale. Johnson and Beatty had previously worked together on the Folded Map Project, which tackled urban segregation as seen in Chicago.

“Last year we did a public hearing, a virtual event where we invited the community to come hear about the project,” Beatty says. “We want to share the project with the community through different means as a way of engaging them on a deeper level.” 

Johnson and Beatty created a three-part podcast series detailing the history of land sale contracts for the project, which is central to providing background and information about the physical land markers. Produced by the National Public Housing Museum, the podcast details the history of how legalized theft contributes to present inequality in Black communities all around America. The podcast, along with a downloadable self-guided tour, website, and photos, aims to help inform people about the historical aspect of land sale contracts while they visit the physical site. 

Inequity for Sale
Podcast episodes, locations for public land markers, and information about upcoming events available at inequityforsale.com.

“The podcast explains what the problem is and the larger systemic issues tied to it,” says Johnson. “Not only did we need something to provide the public during my residency, but we realized it makes sense to pair physical landmarks with something that gives the audience an oversight on what they’re seeing.” 

Overall, it’s estimated that Black families in Chicago have lost $4 billion over the years to predatory housing contracts.

“If Black homeowners in the 50s and 60s owned their homes, the homeownership rate for Englewood would have probably been 80 percent, but that’s not the case,” says Johnson. “The present day homeownership rate is around 25 percent because Black families didn’t even have the chance to claim home ownership years ago.”

Often shut out from conventional mortgages, homeowners had no choice other than to buy directly from sellers with little to no legal protections. Homeowners were promised the home if they could repay their debts over the course of ten to 20 years; however, many were unable due to high interest rates that bled them dry. Many Black homeowners with land sale contracts never received the promised ownership of their homes, instead ruining their credit and credibility with banks, assuring future mortgages were all but impossible to secure. 

“Ninety percent of the homes that were being sold to Black people were sold on land sale contracts,” says Johnson. “You have white families leaving the neighborhood selling their homes to Black families who thought they own their homes but really don’t. This is how Englewood transitioned into a Black neighborhood.”

While the first two land markers are already installed and available for the public to read in passing while walking through Englewood, the other markers (ten to 15 altogether) will be on view late this spring alongside a physical exhibit at the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. The goal is to create an immersive experience that people can visit to physically see the impact land sale contracts have had on the community. 

“When you see a neighborhood that has vacant lots and abandoned homes, it always has to do with some kind of city neglect, disinvestment, or people being taken advantage of through discriminatory housing tools,” says Johnson. 

Both Beatty and Johnson hope this project will provide insight into the past by providing audiences the necessary tools to help process what has, and what will, become of the greater Englewood area. 

“I want to help connect people to this specific history because it’s an ongoing issue affecting the community today,” says Beatty. “I’m really excited to be able to drive down the block and see the big yellow signs, because we’re teaching people a new narrative of Englewood than what we’ve been told.” 

“I want Black youth, and Chicago in general, to not view neighborhoods with vacant lots and abandoned houses as something that’s the fault of its residents, because that’s not who’s at fault here,” says Johnson.