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Aldermanic Power To Blame For City Segregation, Housing Advocates Say — And They Want Mayor Lightfoot To Rein It In

“In white wards, aldermanic prerogative is often used as a tool of the new Jim Crow,” said one advocate. “It is time for us as a city to face our history and to take concerted action to repair it.”

An affordable housing plan divided some Jefferson Park neighbors. That's why housing advocates believe it should be a city mandate, not an alderman's choice.
Alex Nitkin / DNAinfo Chicago
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CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot should settle a complaint filed against the city before she took office that alleges the city’s tradition of giving aldermen the final say over housing developments in their wards has created a hyper-segregated city rife with racism and gentrification, housing advocates urged Wednesday.

The Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, a coalition of groups that have urged city officials to take steps to desegregate the city and provide more affordable housing, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city in November in an effort to force the city to end the largely unwritten policy of aldermanic prerogative.

The lawsuit was prompted by the City Council’s decision to defer to Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41) and reject plans for a seven-story, 297-unit luxury apartment complex near the Cumberland CTA Blue Line station that would have included 30 units set aside for low- and-moderate income Chicagoans.

The groups called on Lightfoot, who campaigned on ending aldermanic prerogative and increasing the supply of affordable housing, to resolve the complaint brought by the coalition, which includes the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

The complaint asks the city to craft a plan to build affordable housing throughout the city — not just in Black and Latino wards — and to roll back aldermen’s veto power over developments that include affordable housing.

To bolster their request, the 11-member coalition released a new report Wednesday documenting the impact of aldermanic prerogative on Chicago’s 77 community areas.

“The unchecked and unwritten code of aldermanic prerogative has served as the sentry of Chicago’s color lines and has detrimentally shaped the city’s neighborhoods over time resulting in: a reduction of land area available for multifamily development, the consequential rising rents and loss of population, and vast disparities in community investment by race.”

Lightfoot, whose first act as mayor was to issue an executive order rolling back aldermanic prerogative when it comes to licenses and permits, has promised changes to the city’s zoning code — which would strike at the heart of aldermanic power over developments.

“In white wards, aldermanic prerogative is often used as a tool of the new Jim Crow,” said Monica Dillon, a member of Neighbors for Affordable Housing, who urged aldermen to ignore Napolitano’s concerns about the apartment complex. “It is time for us as a city to face our history and to take concerted action to repair it.”

Allowing each alderman to make the final decision on housing for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans has created a system of “patchwork planning” that has served to allow segregation to be entrenched in Chicago, Dillon said.

“Under this new administration we must do better than this and we certainly can,” Dillon said.

RelatedAldermanic prerogative rollback changes how planning, housing departments operate: report

The groups, which have not yet sued the city, want Lightfoot to take action by supporting a pair of ordinances that are designed to reduce aldermen’s ability to block the construction of affordable housing in their wards.

The ordinance (O2019-5599) known as Development for All would crank up the Affordable Requirements Ordinance to mandate a higher share of affordable units for new residential developments proposed in gentrifying parts of the city.

The ordinance (O2019-5797) known as Homes For All would require city officials to approve projects that include affordable family housing units in wards where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is as dedicated to low- and moderate-income residents.

Both measures were introduced during the tenure of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who blocked them from being called for votes. Supporters reintroduced both measures in July, but they have yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing, and Lightfoot has not publicly backed either of them.

The report also urges Lightfoot to ban informal Zoning Advisory Committees, which some aldermen use to analyze requests for zoning changes before making a formal decision on whether to approve or deny.

Those groups — which are not required to meet in public — “exist almost exclusively within predominantly white and low-poverty wards and exercise their power to limit the development of affordable housing,” according to the report.

Instead, the city should form Community Development Action Councils made up of elected members “reflective of the demographic diversity of Chicago” to make recommendations on zoning and land-use decisions, according to the report.

The report praises the process created by Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35) as one that “respects and fosters diversity across all demographics.”

The report also recommends that Lightfoot strip aldermen of their power to indefinitely delay zoning applications — a proposal rejected by aldermen when Emanuel made it after Ald. Ed Burke (14) was charged with attempted extortion. Burke has pleaded not guilty.

In addition, the report calls for Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to conduct an annual  review of affordable housing development policies and practices.

Lightfoot’s spokespeople did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the report.