Lightfoot, feds in talks over environmental racism probe

The move heads off a potential battle with federal housing officials who are calling for a change of zoning and land-use practices that they say put polluters in Chicago’s communities of color.

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Marie Collins-Wright, a resident of South Deering, attends a protest demanding Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deny the final permit that will allow General Iron to move from Lincoln Park, a mostly white neighborhood, to the Southeast Side, which has a mostly Latino population, at 3325 W. Wrightwood Ave. near Lightfoot’s home in Logan Square, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 14, 2020.

A protester demands in 2020 that Mayor Lori Lightfoot deny the final permit needed to allow a rebranded General Iron to move to the Southeast Side.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is negotiating with President Joe Biden’s housing officials over potential city reforms after federal investigators accused Chicago of environmental racist zoning and land-use practices. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has held off on making an official declaration of next steps in an almost two-year civil rights investigation. The agency could force the city to make significant and permanent changes to its planning processes or risk losing millions in federal dollars.

After Lightfoot just months ago appeared to be bracing for a fight, HUD said Thursday that the two sides are now in discussions.

“The department seeks to obtain voluntary resolution of matters throughout the course of an investigation and has paused enforcement processes to advance negotiations,” HUD said in a written statement. 

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City Hall officials declined to comment.

In August, Lightfoot administration lawyers sent HUD a letter, asking it to reconsider its findings from the investigation that accused the city of moving polluters to predominantly Black and Brown communities.

The investigation was triggered by the proposed move of metal-shredder General Iron from largely white, wealthy Lincoln Park to a Southeast Side Latino-majority community surrounded by Black neighborhoods — an area already heavily burdened by air pollution.

The letter called the accusation “absolutely absurd,” but HUD said last month the department wouldn’t hesitate to open official proceedings or even refer the matter to the U.S. Justice Department for enforcement.

At stake: tens of millions a year in federal money that Chicago gets — funding that provides programs and services to some of the city’s most vulnerable people.

In July, and again last month, it appeared that Lightfoot was digging in for a fight with Biden.

“The city is confident that it would prevail against enforcement in a court proceeding,” the August letter to HUD said. 

Community and civil rights advocates said that posture was a risky gamble and that the mayor should come to the table with the feds, something that she now appears to be doing.

“It would be a dumb thing if they didn’t” negotiate, said Cheryl Johnson, executive director at People for Community Recovery. Johnson’s organization was one of the community groups that brought a complaint to HUD in 2020. 

The proposed move of General Iron to the Southeast Side was ultimately rejected by Lightfoot earlier this year, but the community groups that filed the civil rights complaint argued that the historical policies and practices that put that plan into motion showed the need for reform.

General Iron’s owner is now going through an administrative hearings process in hopes of overturning the city’s decision to deny a final permit needed to operate. The owner was so confident it would get the permit, based on a two-page agreement with the Lightfoot administration, that it built a new shredding operation at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. 

Lightfoot’s denial of the permit followed many protests and even a monthlong hunger strike, events that brought a number of health care advocates into the debate. Residents of the Southeast Side argued that they couldn’t tolerate more pollution in a community surrounded by dirty industries and already suffering from poor air quality and health problems among residents. 

The community groups whose complaint to HUD opened the investigation, including the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said that not only should reforms be put in place by the city but the car- and metal-shredding operation built at East 116th should be dismantled.

“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,” the groups said in a statement.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. 

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