On His Way Out, Daley Tackles Pollution, Vacant Properties (Progress Illinois)

By Micah Maidenberg

March 16, 2011

With the General Assembly's new session heating up, many of our recent posts have focused on proposals now under discussion in Springfield -- and we'll have much more in the coming days and weeks about that legislation. But outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley introduced two ordinances at the March 9 City Council that are worth highlighting as well.

The Clean Contracting Ordinance (PDF) focuses on air pollution caused by firms the City of Chicago hires to carry out various construction, demolition, environmental remediation, and similar projects worth $2 million or more. By January 2014, the bill says such companies must start incorporating newer engine or retrofit technology to achieve a minimum "clean fleet score," calculated by assigning a value to each piece of construction equipment or vehicle used during the course of a contract. A company using a heavy-duty alternative-fuel vehicle with an '07, '08, or '09 model-year engine would get five points, for example, while a heavy-duty diesel vehicle with an engine model from 2003 or earlier not retrofitted to stop pollution would get zero points. The clean fleet scores ramp up over time.

The idea, said Ashley Collins, manager of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, is to stop the flow of deadly particulate matter that heavy equipment produces.

"We think it's a reasonable plan," Collins said. "Obviously we'd like it to be stronger and implemented sooner, but we understand the economic climate right now. We think it's a good proposal." She described a 2009 ordinance adopted by the Cook County board as stronger, requiring contractors to use the best-available pollution control by 2014.

The city, she said, first implemented a clean air ordinance in 2005, for the O'Hare Modernization Project. "The city has been a leader on this issue but it's six years later so we wanted to see the city strengthen and expand those specs citywide," Collins said.

While much of the conversation about air pollution in Chicago over the past few months has focused on the stalled Clean Power Ordinance, a bill that seeks to regulate the two coal-fired power plants on the city's Southwest Side, fumes from diesel pollution also have a major impact on human health. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that diesel pollution contributes to an estimated 723 premature deaths, 1,125 heart attacks, 511 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 28,201 asthma attacks across the Chicago region annually. The Ilinois Campaign to Clean Up Diesel Pollution, founded by Citizen Action/IL and the Respiratory Health Association, is supporting this effort.

The second bill the mayor introduced on March 9 seeks to tackle the growing problem of vacant homes that are blighting neighborhoods across Chicago, and in particular in minority communities.

Called the Vacant Building TIF Purchase and Rehabilitation Ordinance, the bill (PDF) proposes allowing residents with a household income no greater than 100 percent of the regional median income to apply for a tax increment financing (TIF) grant that would pay for up to 25 percent of the cost of purchasing and rehabilitating an empty residential property. Single-family empty homes or units in condo and cooperative buildings with four units or fewer are eligible. The empty homes must be located in a TIF district and must be in need of at least $25,000 in fix-up costs, the proposal states. Homebuyers would be required to live in the property they are purchasing and fixing up and must be first-time purchasers. The full city council would have to approve each and every grant.

"We needed to incentivize a way to get these vacant buildngs back into productive use," said Department of Housing and Economic Development spokeswoman Molly Sullivan. "We have a huge amount of vacant buildings and most of them are from foreclosures."

According to the Woodstock Institute, banks filed 23,364 foreclosure cases (PDF) against Chicago mortgage holders in 2010, up 3 percent versus 2009. And while 10,569 properties completed the foreclosure process last year, there are an increasing number of vacant, deteriorating homes in the city that have gone into foreclosure but have not emerged from it with any clear outcome.

The mayor introduced the bill during the same council meeting where the Sweet Home Chicago Ordinance, which in its original form sought to reserve 20 percent of the city's annual TIF take for affordable housing, was deferred yet again. The bill's champion, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward), stepped down as chair of the council's Black Caucus in part due to complaints about Sweet Home, the Sun-Times reported, giving it a very uncertain future at best. The Daley administration came out against Sweet Home's strict mandates late last year. Burnett could not be reached for comment.

Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and a spokeswoman for the Sweet Home bill, told Progress Illinois that the homeless coalition was more focused on rental housing and targeting people with lower incomes than those targeted under Daley's bill. But Dworkin later emailed that Daley's bill "is a good thing and I think our campaign probably contributed to its creation." Dworkin cautioned though that Daley's bill should not be "used to say, 'We are already using TIF funds to address foreclosures so we don't need to consider anything like Sweet Home Chicago in the future."

She likened Daley's bill to trying to get toothpaste out of a tube, and then having emerge from an unexpected place. "You push and you push and push and expect the toothpaste to come out the top," Dworkin said, "and you push so hard it comes out the bottom."

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