PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday January 15th, 2014, 6:54pm

Chicago City Council Roundup: E-Cigs, Affordable Housing & Charter Expansion

Progress Illinois recaps some of the happenings at Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.

On Wednesday, the Chicago City Council approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal to ban the use of e-cigarettes in the city where smoking is currently prohibited, including most indoor places and 15 feet from building entrances. The measure, approved by a 45-4 vote, outlaws e-cigarette sales to minors and requires that the products be placed behind retail counters. It also requires e-cigarette dealers to be licensed.

The 'no' votes came from Alds. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Rey Colon (35th), Nicholas Sposato (36th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd). The ordinance, which takes effect in 30 days, comes after a measure was approved in December banning the sale of flavored tobacco products near schools. Emanuel made a point to stress Wednesday that Chicago's children "will not be figured into the bottom line of the tobacco companies."

During council debate that lasted more than an hour, Ald. Will Burns (4th), who co-sponsored the new ordinance, said e-cigarettes "normalize" smoking. Ald. George Cardenas (12th) added that the products are "designed to hook teens into a cigarette product that will hook them for life."

"These products ... are manufactured in a way that is completely unregulated," noted Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th). "So we do not know what's in them other than a few studies that have been done, which conclude they are harmful to our health."

Reilly pointed out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet provided guidance regarding the regulation of e-cigarettes, making a ban appear to be premature.

"I think there is a role in regulating these products, but I'd like to hear from the federal experts at the FDA before we go and implement another ban," the alderman stressed.

Reilly said he is in favor of making it more difficult for minors to access the product, but expressed concerns that restricting the use of e-cigarettes in the city would hinder those using the devices to kick the habit.

"You lose me when you want to treat a product that many people are using for cessation, using this alternative to quit, you're treating it just like a product you're trying to get away from," he said. "This ordinance would actually place vapor users who are trying to get away from second-hand smoke and cigarettes on the curb right next to the folks smoking."

Emanuel responded to some of those concerns to reporters after the meeting. He noted that while some people say e-cigarettes are helpful for quitting smoking, "The tobacco companies have yet to submit their data to the FDA or say that it's a cessation device."

"They don't even say that, because if they say that, they would have to submit the product to FDA oversight, and the reason they have not taken that step is because then all of a sudden all the research would come forward about the product," Emanuel argued.

Chicago's Five-Year Housing Plan

Meanwhile, Emanuel introduced a separate measure at Wednesday's meeting that, like the new e-cigarette measure, is designed to improve the quality of life in Chicago, he said.

The mayor introduced his 2014-2018 housing plan, titled "Bouncing Back," which details $1.3 billion in city investments for the construction, rehab and preservation of more than 41,000 housing units. It's the city's fifth five-year housing report, and the Department of Planning and Development is tasked with overseeing its implementation. Among other strategies, the five-year housing plan looks to "provide affordable housing to the city's most vulnerable residents, including senior citizens on fixed incomes, those at risk of homelessness, and people with special needs."

But those with the citywide Chicago Housing Initiative coalition and more than 20 aldermen want the five-year housing plan amended to include "one-for-one replacement" for standing public housing units that are redeveloped with city funds.

Twenty-two aldermen have offered up new language they want added to the 2014-2018 Housing Plan that, among other things, calls for the "preservation of family public housing and completion of the Plan for Transformation." 

Launched in 1999, the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation strategy to replace public high rises with mixed-used developments called for 25,000 rehabbed or new replacement public housing units. The housing agency is still 3,600 units shy of achieving that goal, according to the aldermen, who are members with the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus, Paul Douglas Alliance and the Progressive Reform Caucus.

Those with the Chicago Housing Initiative maintain that the three previous five-year housing plans from the city devoted more than $650 million to public housing redevelopment since the Plan for Transformation began. But as a result of the city's investments from 1999 to 2013, organizers say more than 18,650 affordable public housing units have being wiped out and just 4,260 affordable units have been rebuilt.

"Far too long, the CHA has used city funding to demolish and [it] never built replacement housing, even while thousands of Chicagoans are struggling with homelessness," said Cheryl Johnson, Chicago Housing Initiative board member and executive director of People for Community Recovery. (Read more about the troubled Plan for Transformation and concerns surrounding the plan hereherehere, and here.)

The coalition and aldermen want the city to help prevent a further net loss of public housing units by "dedicating resources for the preservation and rehabilitation of remaining low-rise family public housing developments" and "requiring that developers who receive city funds to redevelop public housing replace any standing public housing unit that is converted or demolished on a one-for-one basis," according to the proposed language.

Organizers said amending the city’s housing plan is a small but important step in working to ensure the CHA is accountable for the use of its city resources. It's important to establish such conditions for CHA, they said, because the housing agency has less federal oversight due to deregulation. The lack of federal oversight has allowed CHA to divert $100 million in public funds, on average, away from its housing programs each year since 2008, organizers said. That money has instead been moved into CHA’s reserves, which currently tops $660 million, according to the group.

“No one is monitoring the CHA today," stressed Debra Miller, a coalition member who currently lives in Edgewater but faced homelessness in the city for more than a year. "The federal officials have washed their hands of our housing authority, and no one locally has stepped over to provide the oversight that is needed. This is not good management, and it needs to change.”

In remarks after the meeting, Emanuel stressed that the CHA's Plan for Transformation work is not done, and noted that the city's five year housing plan is separate from public housing.

"It is affordable housing, and we need to also address that need in the market and the shortfall," the mayor said. "This [housing plan] deals primarily though, not limited to, renting, and it is about making it affordable so people who work in a modest income area still can have housing or affordable apartments and they can't do it without the support of the public sector."

Resolution To Delay Charter Expansion Vote Sent To Rules Committee

    Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) and his Progressive Reform Caucus colleagues introduced a resolution at Wednesday's council meeting that asks the Chicago Board of Education to postpone its January 22 vote involving applications for 21 new charter campuses. The non-binding resolution calls on the board to suspend any vote involving charter expansion until the City Council's Independent Budget Office, which was approved last month and does not yet have an executive director, conducts a cost analysis of the proposed new schools.

The resolution calls for community forums to discuss the analysis from the newly-created office and asks Local Schools Councils to hold a vote at their schools to “assess the support for the new charter school along with the support for any alternative proposals."

The measure was referred to the Rules Committee, known to some as the place where "good legislation goes to die." Other education-related measures, including the TIF Surplus Ordinance and an elected school board referendum resolution,  have been bottled up in the committee for months.

“We are demanding that all city-elected aldermen come on board and co-sponsor this resolution. Stop the charter school vote on January 22 and give the parents and the community a voice,” Zerlina Smith of Action Now said at a press conference before the council meeting. 

Smith said Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has increased its spending on charter schools by more than $150 million over the past two years, yet the district recently had to close 50 "underutilized" neighborhood schools and slash traditional school budgets to help plug the district's $1 billion deficit. Communities United For Quality Education maintains that the recent budget cuts and school closings resulted in a $255 million disinvestment in neighborhood schools. If all 21 new charters are approved by the board, they could cost the district an additional $225 million in extra costs over the next decade, the group found.

Kerry Murphy with the Raise Your Hand education coalition highlighted the recent budget cuts at some schools on the Northwest Side, one area where CPS wants to open new charters to help alleviate neighborhood school overcrowding.

Prosser Career Academy and Steinmetz College Prep both saw their budgets slashed by more than $1 million, she said, and Kevlyn Park High School took a $1.7 million hit, among other examples.

“This lack of financial resources is setting the neighborhood schools up to fail so that a case can be made that charter schools are better, and that’s a lie. They are not,” Murphy said.

“Remember how well privatization of the parking meters went? Same thing is happening to our schools. Shame on CPS and the mayor for outsourcing our children’s education to people who are no more qualified and, more often than not, less-qualified to teach our children. This needs to end now.”

Sposato said he wants the board to postpone any charter expansion vote until community schools are solidified.

"I have to listen to my constituents, and when my constituents come to me and say, 'No charters, solidify community schools,' that’s what I want," the alderman stressed.

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The ever expanding nanny-state government - banning water vapor devices that act like cigarettes.

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