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Chicago Is Still So Segregated Because Aldermen Are Too Powerful, Study Says

Nearly 100 percent of multi-family affordable housing is built outside majority-white wards, and aldermen often block plans to expand it, the study shows.

In Jefferson Park last year, neighbors came out to protest (and support) an affordable housing plan backed by Ald. John Arena.
Alex Nitkin / DNAinfo
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DOWNTOWN — A new study claims aldermen who have far-reaching powers to block affordable housing in the city are continuing racial segregation in Chicago.

The study, called “A City Fragmented,” was created by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. It details the power aldermen have to block — or allow — affordable housing developments and how this has impacted racial divides in Chicago over the decades.

A 1969 court case “illuminated the fact that the city of Chicago had an intentional and deliberate policy to control where public housing was sited in the city, resulting in concentrations of public housing in predominately black, low-income neighborhoods,” according to the study. “Now, almost 50 years later, the city has continued to allow aldermen to control where affordable housing is sited and, as a result, maintain the city’s rigid patterns of racial segregation.”

Kate Walz, the Shriver Center’s director of Housing Justice and Litigation, said the researchers went decades into the city’s past to determine how and why aldermen use their powers when it comes to affordable housing.

Their findings: Among other things, aldermen have “unfettered zoning power,” Walz said, and can ask the Zoning Committee for an indefinite deferral on an affordable housing proposal to stall it. Aldermen can effectively “pocket veto” plans by not offering an Aldermanic Acknowledge Letter, which developers use to access city funds. And aldermen can influence the early stages of development by telling developers their building can’t have family housing or should have condos instead of rental units.

“It’s all these things that whittle away at opportunities to create affordable housing …,” Walz said. “It’s really sort of stunning when you look at them all together.”

Some developers told the study’s authors they’ll no longer try to work in Chicago or Illinois because they’ve faced too many impediments or too many variances between city wards when trying to build affordable housing, Walz said.

The aldermen’s powers, and how they’ve used them to quash affordable housing in most wards, also leads to a lack of inclusivity, Walz said. 

Nearly three-quarters of the city’s land zoned for multifamily use is outside majority-white wards, and 98 percent of affordable, multi-family housing is built there. That means just 2 percent of new affordable, multi-family housing is built in the 25 percent of multi-family land that’s in white-majority wards, according to the study.

The city owned 56 acres in low-poverty, majority-white areas, but no part of that land was used to build affordable housing, according to the study.

“What it’s doing, especially in predominantly white areas in the city, is taking that hyperlocalized power and using it as a stick to block affordable housing and to be an inclusive community,” Walz said.

What aldermen say now when blocking affordable housing often mimics what aldermen said between the ’30s and ’60s while trying to prevent integration in neighborhoods, Walz said. Then and now, aldermen blocked affordable housing and said they had a right to say what was built in their wards, Walz said.

The language now “may be a bit softer, but we’re hearing … the same thing about keeping the racial composition of a ward the same and not allowing outsiders to come into a community,” Walz said.

“Those are covert racial expressions, and it’s unfortunate that we’re still facing that today. We’ve really been losing the opportunity to be a great and inclusive city.”

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