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Right to Recovery coalition challenges mayor's budget by Suzanne Hanney

The Right to Recovery Coalition would agree with Mayor Lori Lightfoot that $1.9 billion in federal COVID relief is “a once-in-a-generation amount of money for a once-in-ageneration crisis.” Lightfoot wants to use up to half the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds in her FY2022 budget to pay down debt (see pages 8 and 9), but 13 members of the 50-member Chicago City Council would use it all to alleviate poverty in the wake of the pandemic. “The debt she says is due we don’t actually have to pay this year,” said Matthew Cason, treasurer and policy chair of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) regarding the Chicago Rescue Plan Fund 925 ordinance. Other supporters include United Working Families, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Local 73 and SEIU Health Care of Illinois and Indiana. “We’re using ARP funds to invest in our city and our people, whereas debt repayment is not an investment,” Cason said. “That’s what’s setting us up for the future.” He envisions some blend of the Chicago Rescue Plan and Lightfoot’s budget being passed by the Chicago City Council this month or next. Childcare expansion, at $376 million, is the largest line item in the proposed Chicago Rescue Plan, because it is the No. 1 need they discovered, encompassing 7 percent of an average family’s income, Cason said. Their program would either fund people who earn more than the threshold for public reimbursement (roughly $2,874 monthly before taxes for a single mother of one) or be run as a universal program in 10 of Chicago’s 77 community areas, still to be determined. Water Debt Relief, $206 million, is the next biggest allocation. “Who has water debt? Low-income Black and Brown families on the South and West Sides,” Cason said. Some of them owe just a couple hundred dollars, but others have bills in the thousands. Cason blamed faulty infrastructure: leaks inside homes or in pipes connecting to city water mains. One in 6 Chicago residential water accounts was past due at the end of 2019: $341 million in unpaid bills, according to data the Chicago Water Management Department provided to Circle of Blue, a center for reporting on water issues. The

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problem has grown alongside the cost of water and sewer service since 2011. WBEZ found that revenue from water and sewer rates increased 68 percent between 2011 and 2019. Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a rate hike phased in over several years to fund infrastructure. A second increase in 2016, also phased in over several years, went to the municipal workers’ pension fund. Lightfoot introduced Chicago Utility Building Relief (UBR), the nation’s first debt forgiveness program, in April 2020. UBR provides a 50 percent reduction in water, sewer, and water-sewer bills; no shut offs or debt collection on city utility billing, and debt forgiveness after a year of payments. In January, Lightfoot announced that $8.9 million in debt forgiveness had been set aside for UBR. The city had already halved the bills for 8,539 participants. Maxica Williams is a grassroots leader with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), a mother of two daughters age 15 and 13 and a son, 12. Williams had Stage III cancer in 2015 and was homeless from 2016 until the beginning of this year. The Right to Recovery ordinance, by providing stable housing and homelessness assistance, would be investing in the community, she said. Thanks to the federal McKinney-Vento Act, Williams’ children were able to receive transit cards and other supports to remain in the top Chicago Public Schools where they had been since Head Start, even though the family went from shelters and transitional housing on the southwest side to farther south in the 100s, then up north near Wrigley Field and finally back south to Chicago Housing Authority permanent housing. School remained the one, calm, constant in their lives. The result was that her eldest was salutatorian of her 8th grade class and her two younger children remained on the honor roll. CCH gave laptops and the Chicago Connected program provided high speed internet to enable remote learning during the pandemic. Wraparound services included a psychologist on staff and budgeting classes, because when you’ve been doubled up with friends, sometimes you forget how, Williams said. They received Link cards, storage for their possessions and a rental truck when they moved, access to free furniture and even a sewing class, which took her mind