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South Chicago, East Side

After Rejecting Claims Of Environmental Racism, City Moves To Settle Civil Rights Complaint With Feds

After the feds found the city clustered polluters in Black and Brown neighborhoods, the city is negotiating ways to make its zoning policies more equitable — averting the threat of millions in lost funding for now.

Community members, leaders and activists take to the streets and carry a fake coffin through Logan Square to call on Mayor Lightfoot to deny the permit to move General Iron's assets to the Southeast Side on the 30th day of the hunger strike on March 4, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — In an about-face, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is attempting to settle claims Chicago discriminated against Black and Brown residents by moving polluters into their neighborhoods.

Southeast Siders filed a complaint with federal housing officials in 2020, alleging decades of racist city policies pushed polluters into their community. The complaint was sparked by the city’s agreement to help troubled metal scrapper General Iron move its operations to the Southeast Side.

The Southeast Environmental Task Force, People For Community Recovery and the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke filed the 2020 complaint.

After a two-year investigation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials said in July city officials “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” by clustering polluting industry in nonwhite communities.

City Hall initially called the findings “absurd” and dared the federal government to enforce its ruling that the city’s planning and zoning laws were discriminatory. City officials were confident they could win a court battle, attorneys said in August.

But city leaders are backing off that stance and beginning settlement talks, federal housing officials confirmed Thursday. In return, the feds are pausing their enforcement efforts.

“The department seeks to obtain voluntary resolution of matters throughout the course of an investigation,” said Andrea Roebker, Housing and Urban Development spokesperson.

Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s law department, and Lightfoot spokesperson Cesar Rodriguez declined to comment.

Federal housing officials have called on the city to “adopt an enhanced fair housing planning process” that includes plans to overcome disparities in environmental impacts.

The feds have also urged the city to address the “existing and potential environmental harms” of the stalled plans to move General Iron’s operations to Southside Recycling at 116th Street and Burley Avenue.

Future funding for initiatives such as fair housing programs and accessibility services could be at risk if the city doesn’t comply with the investigation. The city distributed $375 million in HUD block grants in the 2021 budget.

South Side leaders have demanded the Lightfoot administration stop being “combative” over the civil rights complaint. The city’s defensiveness put funding for crucial city programs at risk, they said.

“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,” Marie Collins-Wright, vice president of the Jeffrey Manor Community Revitalization Council, said earlier this month.

As the city negotiates a settlement, the Lightfoot administration needs “to get real about fixing a system that has created sacrifice zones in Black and Latino neighborhoods,” group leaders behind the complaint said in a statement Thursday.

The activists are “exhausted from having to push and fight with city officials to take us seriously and stop putting the interest of polluting industry over the health of Chicagoans,” they said.

Though the city denied Southside Recycling’s final permit in February, the metal scrapper is appealing the decision. The company spent $80 million to build a metal shredder based on the city’s promise to facilitate its opening, company officials have said.

“The massive metal shredding facility is still in place and the threat of General Iron still hangs over our heads,” the Southeast Side activists said. “It needs to be deconstructed, and we need to make fundamental reforms to the racist systems that allowed toxic polluters to amass in neighborhoods like ours.”

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