Chicago’s Proposed Budget Would Steer Millions Toward Homelessness, Trees And More

Trees in Chicago
A file photo of trees along the Chicago lakefront. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing millions of dollars for social services and other projects, including money for planting 75,000 trees across the city. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Trees in Chicago
A file photo of trees along the Chicago lakefront. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing millions of dollars for social services and other projects, including money for planting 75,000 trees across the city. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago’s Proposed Budget Would Steer Millions Toward Homelessness, Trees And More

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has long faced criticism that she hasn’t put resources behind some of the progressive policy proposals she got elected on.

After the mayor last week outlined her $16.7 billion so-called “Recovery Budget,” which is propped up by a windfall of federal stimulus money, advocates across Chicago tell WBEZ they’re optimistic that might be changing. But, some worry the progress will be short-lived, built on a massive influx of federal dollars that won’t last.

“When you’re using a one time funding source, you’re not going to have that those dollars in the next year, unless you create another funding stream, which is why we’re advocating for and have been advocating for for a long time,” said Doug Schenkelberg, Executive Director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for new environmental, violence prevention, mental health programming and more is made possible by nearly $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money coming to Chicago, as well as allocations from the city’s capital fund. On Friday, Chicago aldermen started to dig into the details of those initiatives, and where exactly the money for them will come from, during the first of two weeks of hearings on the 600-page budget.

Here’s a look at a few of those spending proposals.

Homelessness

The mayor’s budget proposal sets aside $202 million for “homelessness initiatives” — the biggest spending plan some who’ve been working on the issue for years say they’ve ever seen.

“It’s an interesting moment,” Schenkelberg said. “On the one hand, it is the biggest investment we’ve seen. On the other hand, we know it disappears after a year or two. So we need to be smart about how we use this and I think this is a good start.”

The pot of money will help pay for upgrades to existing shelters, permanent support housing for the homeless, converting hotels into permanent housing and short-term rental subsidies to house people quickly, according to budget documents.

Schenkelberg said the influx of funds is critical, but he expressed concern that the bulk of these initiatives are being funded through one-time revenue from the federal government’s relief fund.

He said the coalition continues to lobby for longer-term solutions the group says the mayor has yet to champion. In particular, they’ll continue to lobby the mayor to back their proposal to increase taxes on new property sales over $1 million to create a consistent revenue source to address homelessness.

Environmental issues

Trees, trees, and more trees. About $46 million of a whopping $188 million in spending would help the city plant 75,000 trees over the next five years. And while planting a tree may seem trivial to some, advocates say it’s a major commitment to fighting and mitigating the effects of climate change, particularly in disinvested areas of the city, where tree deserts exist.

“This is the largest urban forestry program the City Chicago has ever undertaken. And it’s critically important,” said Robert Megquier, Executive Vice President of Openlands, one of the largest environmental organizations with a license to plant trees in Chicago.

“The climate effects of heat islands in the city of Chicago in communities where there are no trees, where trees have been removed, never replaced … trees filter up pollution, they capture stormwater, they clean the air, they produce a cool environment. They are an incredibly important and quite frankly underlooked resource.”

Megquier highlighted several other programs he believes will benefit residents directly if this budget is passed, including the continuation of the “Space to Grow” pilot program, which guides Chicago Public Schools kids through building flood mitigation ecosystems on CPS property in their neighborhoods. The pilot program has built 35 such sites, and the budget would fund another 20.

“It’s done in disadvantaged communities in flood prone communities,” Megquier said. “And the outcomes are extraordinary — and it’s hard to understand the scale of this. There is at least 150,000 gallons of stormwater collected on these sites in any rain event. And that means that that water doesn’t go into people’s basements.”

Mental health

Around $86 million in mental health spending will go toward investments in the city’s existing public health clinics, federally-qualified community health centers, help to support “trauma-informed centers of care,” and notably for many, $15 million to pay for new pilots on alternative responses to 9-1-1 calls.

“I think historically, we’ve focused a lot on the crisis system, frankly, where first responders are kind of the front line to the mental health space,” said Alexa James, Executive Director of NAMI Chicago, which helps run the city’s mental health crisis hotline.

“This [proposal] really scaffolds programming from trauma support, to investment in the clinics, to investment in FQHCs, to provide a more holistic type of treatment.”

In addition, the spending will go toward 32 trauma-based mental health programs in 34 high-need community areas the city funded with an $8.5 million allocation from the 2020 budget. These are centers the city said are equipped to treat people who’ve experienced extreme trauma. The city said the prior year’s spending helped fuel a 300% increase in the number of residents served. This year’s spending will help the city invest in the remaining 43 community areas not served by the 2020 allocation.

For some, though, the investments in mental health this year continue to represent an unfulfilled campaign promise from the mayor, who vowed to reopen some of the city’s shuttered public mental health clinics.

Amika Tendaji, is executive director of Black Lives Matter Chicago, which has been advocating for public mental health services and support with a coalition of organizations. She says that the mayor’s proposal, which sends money toward private mental health providers to help support the community, falls short in its true service toward the public.

“There are private mental health providers in that coalition who are saying private is not the solution,” Tendaji said. “Out of the hundreds of private clinics, there is no accountability. When you call [them], they don’t answer the phone, the phone doesn’t work … In a city that is known globally and known nationally for violence, you should also be a city that takes responsibility for healing.”

Tendaji told WBEZ that Black Lives Matter Chicago opposes the budget due to the lack of funding for reopening mental health clinics, in addition to a proposed 11% increase to the police budget.

Still, the mayor’s office says that yes, while it is sending money to private health care centers providing mental health, the city has funded the renovation and expansion of hours and youth services to the city’s existing five mental health clinics, and spending this year would continue to support those clinics.

Small businesses

While the mayor’s budget includes a proposed $87 million for “workforce and small business support,” some say it doesn’t do enough to put dollars into the hands of some of the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, most notably hotels and restaurant businesses.

“A lot of that is for workforce, and workforce training,” said Jack Lavin, CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “It’s primarily workforce money, which is important, I mean workers need to be trained — there’s no doubt about it.

“But it’s not direct support to small businesses to restaurants, hotels, to make sure that they can stay strong and remain open,” Lavin said.

Budget documents show that a majority of the $87 million will be spent to “provide grants and business support services to revitalize commercial corridors, support new small business owners” and more, though it’s unclear how or to what businesses that money will be distributed.

About $20 million of the allocation will go toward training opportunities, and “local participation in commercial development processes.”

Lavin argued the grant and workforce funding will not be enough to offset a proposed $76.5 million increase to the property tax levy included in the mayor’s budget. That increase to the levy includes new property hitting the city’s tax rolls, which won’t affect current property owners, as well as an automatic increase tied to the Consumer Price Index, and a previously approved increase for capital projects.

Aldermen on Friday questioned budget officials about the lack of direct relief to businesses like hotels, with officials saying the city has sent Cares Act assistance to those businesses throughout the pandemic.

New pilots

The influx of federal funds allows the mayor to propose spending on some bold pilot projects, including the 9-1-1 alternative response program. City officials on Friday acknowledged the fact that these programs are being propped up in part by a short-term funding source, but said federal funding gives them the opportunity to explore which programs might be worth investing in long-term.

“We all … know that this is one-time funding,” Budget Director Susie Park said. “And the way that a lot of the investments that we have proposed are built is that it’s either a one-time assistance, or it’s a one-time assistance that’s laying a foundation that we are going to look at, how, when the funds are gone, how that will continue.”

Notably, the mayor’s pushing the city’s first Universal Basic Income program that will use $31.5 million to give 5,000 households $500 a month for a year.

“This gives us the political opportunity to try new and bold things like a guaranteed income pilot,” said Jenna Severson, with the progressive policy group Economic Security for Illinois, which helped craft the pilot program.

“Our hope is that if we can see and show that the investment directly in people is a really profound way to end poverty, then [policymakers] continue to make that investment in the future.”

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.