Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to get tough on residential and commercial high-rises thumbing their noses at Chicago’s 20-year-old recycling requirement ran into a buzz-saw of opposition Monday, forcing a re-write on the fly.
Under fire from building owners and aldermen, the Department of Streets and Sanitation agreed to add a “30-day warning of non-compliance.”
Only after that ultimatum is delivered would the 30-day clock start ticking on hefty new fines — ranging from $500 to $5,000-per-offense — against residential and commercial high-rises where recycling is either not provided at all or where local residents don’t comply.
With that change, the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection approved the mayor’s plan, setting the stage for a final vote at Wednesday’s meeting of the full City Council.
The warning period was not enough to appease the 14,000-member Chicago Association of Realtors.
Spokesman Brian Bernardoni branded the penalties “unduly onerous” at a time when building owners are bearing the brunt of a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and school construction and bracing for an additional $250 million property tax increase for teacher pensions.
“We’re scared of the unintended consequences of small landlords getting hit with huge fines,” Bernardoni said.
Noting that the penalties “compound on a daily basis,” Bernardoni said, “$25,000 on a 25-unit building could easily happen because a tenant had an issue. They decided to raise that question. And the city would have no other recourse [but] to actually enforce the ordinance.”
Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said he is a “big supporter of recycling.” But he argued that “the margins these landlords are making are not large enough” to justify such hefty fines.
“My guy goes out and writes the ticket. The next week, same thing happens. He writes another ticket. And it just keeps going on. I as a landlord now have to pay that big fine and more fines and more fines. I just can’t see that,” Cochran said.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams noted that, over the last ten years, the city has issued only 197 citations against commercial and residential high-rises that do not offer recycling.
In other words, the goal is to work with building owners to boost recycling — not to bring the hammer down.
“Someone has to be accountable. And it has to rest with the landlord. [But], issuing a citation — that’s our last resort. That’s where we get no communication whatsoever. We can’t get any cooperation whatsoever,” Williams said.
“The focus is not on the fines. The focus is on making sure that we get folks to come into compliance. It’s not about, `I have you. I’m gonna get a fine to you.’ No. It’s about trying to get everyone in the city of Chicago to recycle. Allowing a 30-day period for a warning just emphasizes we’re trying to get compliance. We want folks to recycle. Whether you live in a high-rise or you live in a residential building. The city does not lose. You don’t lose. No one loses if you recycle. That’s the focus.”
Williams noted that, “in most instances,” enforcement of the ordinance would be “complaint-driven.”
“Say you live in a 100-unit apartment building and you do not have a recycling program. Someone sends a complaint to us [or to] 311. The ward superintendent goes out and meets with that building management and explains to them what type of program they need to have implemented and works with them on getting it started,” Williams said.
After a barrage of complaints from high-rise residents who claim their buildings don’t offer any recycling at all, Emanuel wants to amend Chicago’s 20-year old recycling ordinance to spell out the specific responsibilities of building owners and add enforcement tools to the city’s arsenal.
The ordinance approved Monday would require property owners of multi-unit residential, office and commercial buildings to provide “source-separated, single stream recycling.”
That means recyclable need to be separated from normal waste and remain segregated until pick-ups arranged and paid for by the buildings.That’s described as the most commonly used collection method in the industry.
Property owners would also be responsible for educating tenants and lease holders. That campaign must include posting signs, providing adequate carts and sending written notice to tenants about the change and the recycling expected of them.
Streets and Sanitation will be responsible for enforcement, armed with a sliding scale of fines.
Penalties include: $500 to $1,000 for the first offense; $1,000 to 2,500 for second offense within 12 months; and $2,500 to $5,000 for the third violation and any ones after that within 12 months of the most recent violation.
Earlier this month, Williams was asked how he plans to convince entire high-rise buildings to recycle when the city can’t persuade single-family homeowners to recycle in some Chicago neighborhoods.
“What we’re hoping here is that people voluntarily do that. The key there is making sure that the buildings are providing them the opportunity to do so. If it’s provided, they’ll take advantage of it,” he said.