The Biden administration is threatening to block millions of dollars in federal aid to Chicago unless Mayor Lori Lightfoot reforms zoning and land use policies that civil rights investigators have concluded are discriminatory.
Time and time again, city officials have encouraged polluting industries to move out of white neighborhoods into Black and Latino communities already disproportionately suffering from environmental ills, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development said Tuesday. USA in a letter to Lightfoot.
The letter summarizes a two-year investigation fueled by the city’s actions that paved the way for General Iron Industries, a highly influential scrap shredder, to leave a wealthy, mostly white Lincoln Park and move to the southeast side. from the city.
Black and Latino community activists in the low-income area near the Indiana border applied to HUD in 2020accusing Lightfoot and his predecessors on the City Council of perpetuating racial segregation and housing discrimination in the nation’s third-largest city.
If the changes are not adopted, HUD warned, the housing agency could withhold grants distributed among city agencies. Those grants totaled $375 million during 2021 alone.
“Many of the processes discussed in this letter remain unchanged and are ripe for repetition,” Jacy Gage, director of HUD’s division of disability rights and compliance, wrote in the letter to Lightfoot.
General Iron, who had a long history of pollution problems on the North Side, it was on track to become the latest polluter in a long-neglected corner of Chicago, where residential yards, baseball fields and playgrounds are polluted with heavy metals and toxic chemicals from other companies. , including the steel mills that left the area decades ago. .
“Disparities in environmental loads and their health effects were well known to the city and raised by residents and experts,” Gage wrote. “However, the city took significant steps toward relocation without considering how relocation would exacerbate those disparities.”
Although the letter was dated Tuesday, Gage noted that the federal agency had shared its findings with the Lightfoot administration in February. Shortly thereafter, the Chicago Department of Public Health abruptly changed course and refused last permission necessary before the scrap shredder on the southeast side could open.
The decision left General Iron’s corporate successor with mounds of crushed cars, twisted rebar and used appliances around an idle machine built along the Calumet River. under a deal the executives thought they had negotiated with Lightfoot.
Reserve Management GroupAn Ohio-based company that bought the North Side operation before closing it in late 2020 is appealing the permit denial.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Lightfoot accused HUD of leaking the department’s letter to reporters. There is no mention of the fact that three community groups they are copied on the letter and the findings are shared with the local media.
“Any accusation that we have done anything to compromise the health and safety of our Black and Latino communities is absolutely absurd,” the mayor’s office said in its statement. “We will prove it and we will prove them wrong.”
During their investigation, federal housing officials found many of the same problems that community activists and the City Council have already documented.
For example, more than 75 polluters on the Southeast Side have been investigated for Clean Air Act violations since 2014, including businesses that polluted playgrounds and playgrounds with brain-damaging manganese Y petroleum coke that damages the lungs.
People who live on the southeast side breathe the dirtiest air in the city, displays the tracking data. A study by the city’s health department confirmed that neighborhoods near the RMG site are significantly more vulnerable to pollution than neighborhoods on the North Side, where the company operated the now-defunct General Iron crusher.
City officials working for Lightfoot and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked closely with RMG and General Iron executives to remove regulatory hurdles to operating the southeast side, HUD investigators found. They even coordinated statements to the public and local media.
The Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, headed by mayor appointees, “refrained from exercising its broad investigative authority” and approved the new crusher “based solely on the companies’ assertions and without any significant consideration.” of the many concerns with environmental impact. of the new site,” the letter concluded.
In mid-February, prior to the permit decision, a HUD official complained in another letter that city officials had failed to turn over records to civil rights investigators in a timely manner, writing that Lightfoot’s administration ” severely delayed the production of requested materials without good reason. ”
Some records were withheld from the feds but released to the media. He took “an inordinate period of time to produce” other records, the HUD letter said.
Heading into a re-election campaign, Lightfoot has come under fire from activists who say she has done little more than acknowledge the racial, economic and environmental divide in one of the most segregated cities in the country.
Biden, a fellow Democrat, took office promising address long-standing racial disparities in the nationin particular the concentration of dirty industries in poor communities.
Behind the crusher dispute are zoning ordinances intended to encourage and protect the industry in certain parts of Chicago.
General Iron lost those special protections under Emanuel, who backed the transformation of industrial-zoned properties along the North Branch of the Chicago River into luxury. lincoln yards developing.
The southeast side scrap shredder, built among the ruins of the old Republic Steel plant, is located in another planned manufacturing districtwhich includes several of the dirtiest industries in the city.
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Adjustments made during the Emanuel administration encourage industrial development and retention in 20 corridors across the city where white Chicagoans make up just 20% of the population, the HUD letter noted.
Federal investigators concluded that the new policies are intended to funnel luxury non-industrial development similar to Lincoln Yards into three other corridors that are 68% white.
“Textbook environmental racism,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, in a statement co-authored by Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery and Gina Ramirez of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke.
In an interview, Bautista praised the federal agency for validating community activists’ concerns.
“Now we need to make sure that the city moves forward and we get the results that we need,” Bautista said. “We are not done. Now the real work begins.”