EAST SIDE — The city has long violated the civil rights of Black and Latino residents by clustering polluters in their communities, federal housing officials determined this year — an “absurd” finding, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office.
City attorneys have dared the federal government to enforce its ruling that the city’s planning and zoning policies are discriminatory, saying they’re confident they’d win a battle in court.
But advocates are calling on the city to accept the results of the feds’ investigation, as the Lightfoot administration’s pushback could risk millions of dollars in future funding for crucial programs, they said.
“We demand that Mayor Lightfoot [stop] defying the investigation, in terms of being combative on an issue that is clearly affecting many communities,” Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) said at a press conference Wednesday. “It’s undeniable that we have an issue of environmental racism in the city of Chicago.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, found in July city officials “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” for decades as they clustered polluting industry in nonwhite communities.
Southeast Side environmental activists kicked off the investigation that led to the findings by filing a civil rights complaint in 2020. The complaint was triggered by the city’s agreement to facilitate a metal scrapper’s planned move from mostly-white Lincoln Park to the mostly-Black and Latino Southeast Side.
In announcing the findings, housing officials urged the city to address the “existing and potential environmental harms” of the stalled plans to move General Iron’s assets to Southside Recycling at 116th Street and Burley Avenue.
The feds also called on the city to “adopt an enhanced fair housing planning process” that includes plans to overcome disparities in environmental impacts. Future funding could be at risk if city officials don’t comply, officials said.
“If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer this matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement,” compliance and disability rights director Jacy Gaige said in July.
The city distributed $375 million in HUD block grants in the 2021 budget, according to Gaige. A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management did not respond to Block Club’s questions about the 2022 and 2023 budgets.
City programs funded by HUD grants include:
- Fair housing programs, affordable housing initiatives and discrimination complaints through the Commission on Human Relations.
- Loans for homebuyers who may otherwise not be able to afford a home, homeownership counseling and accessibility upgrades to seniors’ homes through the Department of Planning and Development.
- Services for people experiencing homelessness, seniors and survivors of domestic violence through the Department of Family & Support Services.
- Accessibility services through the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
“The funds that [Lightfoot] is putting at risk are going to affect real people,” said Chris White, organizing director for the Alliance of the Southeast.
City Hall is doing Chicagoans a “disservice” by denying the city’s history of “blatant” environmental racism, said Marie Collins-Wright, vice president of the Jeffrey Manor Community Revitalization Council.
“Chicago is in a position where they can show the rest of the country how to address some of these issues, instead of everybody fighting,” Collins-Wright said. “It’s nothing to fight about. … This city has been built on segregated communities, segregated neighborhoods and people of color and poor people [being] marginalized.”
Despite residents’ calls for cooperation, the city is standing firm in its position that its planning and zoning decisions weren’t and aren’t discriminatory.
There are “fundamental errors, both factually and legally, that underlie HUD’s findings,” law department spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said Wednesday. “The City seeks HUD’s reconsideration of its findings in light of these fundamental errors.”
City attorneys argued in an August letter that federal housing officials have no authority over where industrial facilities are placed, and the statute of limitations on any other claims of environmental racism have run out, according to the Sun-Times.
In addition, Southeast Siders were not harmed because the city denied Southside Recycling’s final permit in February, city attorneys wrote.
Though Southside Recycling’s permit was denied after years of community organizing, the continued operation of Sims Metal Management in mostly-Latino Pilsen and of MAT Asphalt in mostly-Latino McKinley Park are other recent examples of inequity in city policy, Sigcho Lopez said.
“We have so many cases, and the city of Chicago must start addressing this instead of ignoring it — or worse, [being] combative on an issue that needs collaboration and intergovernmental cooperation,” Sigcho Lopez said.
President Joe Biden’s administration has been “unusually cooperative” with residents’ efforts to address environmental inequity, and the mayor’s opportunity should work alongside those efforts — not resist them, White said.
“It’s foolish to waste that opportunity when you have a cooperative administration,” White said. “… We’ve never completely understood, from that perspective, why [Lightfoot] would run as a reformer and fight reform.”
Lightfoot spokesperson Ryan Johnson forwarded Block Club’s questions to the law department and budget office. HUD spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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