The race for the 12th Ward

By Oscar Perez

On Feb. 7th a forum was organized for the 12th Ward aldermanic candidates by Vota Con Ganas, Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ) and The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

The purpose of the event was to give community residents an opportunity to hear what the candidates had to say about environmental issues that affect the community. Residents were also given the freedom to ask the candidates questions of their own. With municipal elections right around the corner, it was crucial that residents knew where the aldermanic candidates stood on community environmental justice issues.. Present at the event were candidates Jose Rico and Pete DeMay. Martha Rangel was expected to attend, but couldn’t make it due to a severe cold.

Environmental Health in the Community

Rico and DeMay both spoke about the importance of having a clean and healthy community and a high overall quality of life. When asked about the environmental issues in the 12th ward that are cause for concern, Rico mentioned “the truck traffic. The truck traffic is the worst pollutant in the neighborhood.”

He noted that diesel exhaust is among the most dangerous type of air pollution, since the fine particulate matter lodges in the blood and can penetrate into organs. He noted that the BNSF intermodal facility in the area is a major source of truck traffic and diesel emissions. 

“I want to make sure that we can deal with this and try to minimize citizens’ exposure to environmental contaminants,” DeMay said. “We’ve got to do that by going after the intermodal facility–there is such a density of diesel exhaust. We have to work as a community and pressure these companies to minimize it and do better. How can we get them to position that fleet into something that’s going to pollute less?”

In a recent turn of events, the MAT Asphalt plant located on Pershing and Damen avenues will be applying to the Illinois EPA for their five-year operating permit this year. MAT Leasing, a waste transfer business owned by Michael A. Tadin, was established in 2011. Many residents in the neighborhood of McKinley Park were caught by surprise when construction of the plant began.

Alderman George A. Cardenas, had received a generous donation to his political action committee Friends of George A. Cardenas in 2015 from MAT Leasing. Now, with the MAT Asphalt plant in full operation, residents continue to be exposed to many hazards, including those posed by particulate matter, which can cause cardiac and respiratory issues.

Fortunately, questions about the MAT Asphalt plant were addressed to both Rico and DeMay.

“If elected I will not only write a letter, I will demand that the Inspector General look  at all the records that had taken place before the approval of the MAT asphalt (pant); and look at all the payments that were made between the current alderman and any of the owners of the MAT asphalt,” Rico said. 

DeMay said: “Yes, we need to close that asphalt plant. I want to call now on a federal investigation into how the asphalt plant was approved. To my belief, it was approved under false pretenses, there was erroneous information in the application and the permission for the asphalt plant should be revoked immediately.”

Community Development without Displacement

Rico and DeMay also fielded questions about  gentrification and affordable housing in the 12th Ward. In the predominantly Latinx community some live here without legal documentation.

The median household income in the 12th Ward is approximately $34,672, so a plan is needed to keep local working-class residents in their homes as the cost of housing continues to rise. Many of the residents at the event looked to Rico and DeMay to share a plan for action.

Rico responded, “On Tuesday I went to testify against the new 78 project. The new 78 project is a project where almost one billion dollars of subsidies in TIFs is to be given to developers to do infrastructure work so that private companies could come in and make multi-million dollar houses. These funds would be going downtown instead of using those same TIF dollars that are our dollars to give Little Village residents two hundred units of affordable housing.”

DeMay added, “Folks get older [and] their buildings deteriorate. A lot of times, they cannot afford the upkeep and they’d have to move out. They’re displaced by wealthier people. If we can provide some economic setup for them to stay, that would move affordable housing in the right direction. I [also] want to make sure that we lift the ban on rent control. Finally, we need a jobs program. An average median income of 38,000 dollars isn’t enough to live in Chicago.”

They were swift to mention that the TIF program was ineffective, as it unfairly distributes funds between the wards–funds that could otherwise be used to build many quality affordable homes for residents in the ward.

Both candidates also showed great interest in bringing business to the community and investing funds in renovating homes and giving tax breaks to homeowners. All these improvements should lead to a better quality of life for local residents including affordable rent.

This story was produced as a partnership between Yollocalli Arts Reach and Medill.

Featured photo by Oscar Perez.
Edited by Katie Rice and Chris Schulz.