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Getting the lead out: alderman play politics with poison paint

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In October the Tribune ran a story about Jesse and Debra Selvy--a near-west-side couple with children whose blood is contaminated by lead. Since then not much has been done for the Selvys: chunks of lead paint still fall from the walls of their dilapidated nine-room apartment and 5 of their 11 children still have high levels of lead in their blood.

Moreover, funds earmarked to eradicate such problems took over a year to clear the City Council, a strange legislative journey impeded at the last moment by a petty struggle between the Daley administration and what's left of the council's independents.

"Only in Chicago could lead poison become a partisan issue," says Aaron Miripol, coordinator for the Lead Elimination Action Drive, a not-for-profit coalition of neighborhood groups. "We've asked for more money to hire inspectors and testers since 1988. With more staff, violators like the Selvys' landlord might have been dragged into court long ago."

The irony is that Mayor Richard M. Daley says he supports efforts to rid the city of lead paint. "Daley has made lead paint one of his priorities in health since he was elected mayor," says Terry Levin, a Daley spokesman. "This administration has been working on the lead-paint problem since the beginning."

The issue goes back to the early 1970s, when federal health officials publicized the link between lead contamination and kidney, liver, and brain damage. Children are contaminated by eating chunks of lead-based paint or by inhaling dust from it. "Lead paint causes learning disabilities, mental retardation, and even death," says Miripol. "It's not killing children every day, but it's affecting children every day. It poisons the blood system and goes to the brain." The city has banned the sale of lead-based paint, and there are thousands of inhabited buildings that need to be stripped of it.

Overall, roughly 10 percent of Chicago's children reside in what officials call high-risk areas. The situation is especially dangerous in older, low- income inner-city communities like West Garfield Park, Woodlawn, Fuller Park, and Englewood, where, according to city statistics, the rate of contamination reaches as high as 25 poisonings per 1,000 children annually. Because the city does not have enough inspectors to test the buildings, or public-health nurses to warn residents of the danger, many children don't even know they are poisoned.

Five years ago the Selvys discovered that their children were poisoned after a routine checkup at school. Debra Selvy explains, "They must have been eating some of the paint, though I never saw them do it. The school referred them to the hospital, and they gave us some prescription pills."

That took care of the kids for the time being, but not the problem that made them sick. The city sent an inspector, who examined the wall that was peeling and concluded that it was contaminated with lead.

"The landlord was dragged into court and told to fix that one wall," says Selvy. "By the time he fixed it, another wall was peeling, so the inspector came out and tested that one. By the time the landlord fixed the second wall, the first one was peeling again. You'd figure the city would make him fix all the walls. But that's not how the system works."

The landlord was in and out of court on the matter for five years, say the Selvys. Only occasionally would he patch a peeling wall. "I complained to him, but he would threaten us with the kids," says Selvy. "Basically, he was saying, 'Good luck finding a place for 11 kids.'"

So the Selvys remain in their West Town apartment amid appalling conditions. In addition to peeling paint and wallpaper, the ceiling leaks and there's no glass in one of the front windows. Throughout the winter, the family closes off the front rooms with blankets and bed sheets and lives in the four back rooms, which are heated by the stove.

"We stay because we have nowhere else to go," says Jesse Selvy, who works for a cabinetmaking firm. "But it's not nice here, that's for sure."

It's not legal either. If the city pressed, the landlord would be forced to remove the paint. "If there's lead paint, the landlord should be fined," says Miripol. "If he doesn't pay his fine and clean up the paint--and I mean really scrape it off--within a month, the building should be put into court receivership. That's the way it should be, not the way it is." Instead, cases like the Selvys' drag through housing court for years. Landlords are rarely forced to make repairs.

"There's a huge backlog in housing court," says 49th Ward Alderman David Orr. "A lot of matters could be handled by an administrative law judge, but the city doesn't have that kind of setup. The courts are clogged with hundreds of relatively minor cases, and serious cases are lost in the shuffle."

At the moment, the city spends about $1 million in federal funds on lead inspection and abatement programs, which Miripol's group thinks is not enough. They thought they had an ally in Mayor Washington, but the best he could do was appoint a task force to study the matter. The task force issued its report in August 1988, calling for an exhaustive citywide inspection to determine which buildings needed to be stripped. Mayor Sawyer approved the recommendations, but didn't allocate the money to implement them.

Ironically, Daley used lead paint as an issue against Sawyer in last year's mayoral campaign. But once in office, the best Daley's done is to hire one doctor and a few inspectors, and ask the state to increase lead-paint abatement funds.

For the coalition that was not enough; they requested a meeting with Frank Kruesi, Daley's top social-service adviser. When they got no reply, they opted for a more direct approach: they "invaded" a University of Chicago reception where Kruesi was speaking.

"After Kruesi spoke there were questions, and we stood up and asked him why he was avoiding meeting with us," says Miripol. "I guess he got embarrassed because he took out his date book and gave us an appointment."

At that meeting, Kruesi promised the coalition a new "initiative" in lead-paint abatement. But when the administration released its 1990 budget a few weeks later, there were no new funds allotted. "We were shocked," says Miripol. "Not only had Kruesi told us about the initiative, but Daley had mentioned lead paint in his budget address. We thought some money would be there."

The coalition asked Orr to propose an amendment to the Daley budget that would add about $1 million for lead-paint programs. "Orr's amendment came up for a vote at the December 13 meeting, and we thought it would pass, no problem," says Miripol. "How can you be against a program to crack down on lead-paint poisoning? It's like being against children."

To their dismay, 34th Ward Alderman Lemuel Austin, one of the few black aldermen loyal to Daley, proposed that the amendment be sent to the Budget Committee, which he chairs. Orr protested, but in the ensuing vote Orr lost 23-22, and the amendment was sent to committee.

Among those voting to send the Orr proposal to committee were Aldermen William Beavers (7th), who represents a mostly black south-side ward; Patrick O'Connor (40th), who's running for Cook County state's attorney; Richard Mell (33rd) and Joseph Kotlarz (35th), from northwest-side wards; and Bernard Hansen (44th) and Mary Ann Smith (48th), who hail from traditionally liberal north-lakefront communities.

Most surprising was the behavior of Aldermen Luis Gutierrez (26th) and Juan Soliz (25th). They represent impoverished Hispanic and black communities riddled with lead-contaminated buildings. They were not present for the vote. (The Selvys, by the way, live in Gutierrez's ward.)

"Gutierrez and Soliz were on the floor before and after the vote," says an Orr aide. "But they weren't on the floor when we needed them. If they had voted with us, we would have won. I don't know if they were following orders; all I know is that they took a walk."

Kotlarz says the matter was sent to committee because the administration needed more time to figure out where money for the program would come from, adding: "I am for anything that will clean up lead."

And Smith says she knew from conversations with Kruesi that Daley would come through with money. "Lead paint is important to me, but the coalition misrepresented the issue and did a weak job of lobbying," says Smith. "They said this was the last chance to vote for the funds, and that's not true. The budget is constantly being revised. Also, they never called me. They took my vote for granted."

Privately, several aldermen say the vote was a protest against Orr. "He's unpopular," says one alderman. "He tries to make himself look good by making us look bad. If you want something passed, you'd better not have him sponsor it."

For his part, Orr blames the defeat on administrative bungling. "I think Daley wanted the lead-paint money in the budget but that someone in his administration left it out," he says. "The mayor must have been pretty embarrassed when he realized it wasn't there."

Beyond that, Orr, who's running for county clerk, refuses to discuss publicly his relationship with the administration. "David doesn't want to get into a feud with the mayor," says an Orr aide. "But the administration is always stealing our ideas. They don't want Orr to get credit for anything."

If he's right--and Levin says he's not--the mayor is employing a trick mastered by his father, the late Richard J. Daley, who routinely shuffled proposals by council independents to committee. There they were either buried or reworded and sent back to council under the sponsorship of a friendly, more subservient Machine alderman.

In this case, after the Sun-Times ran an article that was critical of Daley, the Budget Committee reconsidered Orr's proposal. They wound up trimming Orr's program from $1 million to $650,000, and sent it back to council, where on December 20 it unanimously passed. (Soliz and Gutierrez managed to be on the floor for that vote.)

Now Daley's talking about reviving Orr's proposal for a housing-court administrator--an idea the mayor's allies buried in committee months ago. "Orr was with us when no one else was, and I'd like for him to get his credit," says Miripol. "But you can't take these things personally. I'm glad they added the funds. Now let's get that lead out of the Selvy apartment."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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