For decades, Chicago’s aldermen have used their influence on housing to maintain racial and economic segregation, according to a new report. But while the problem of segregation is real, limiting local power is not the solution, Logan Square aldermen said.
The report, “A City Fragmented: How Race, Power and Aldermanic Prerogative Shape Chicago’s Neighborhoods,” was published earlier this summer by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA) and Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. They presented a talk on the findings this month at City Bureau in Woodlawn’s Experimental Station. The work examines how aldermen have shaped the racial and economic patterning of the city’s neighborhoods.
Motivated by racial fears among their constituents, aldermen have used what’s called “aldermanic prerogative,” the report said, to shape housing. Specifically, they’ve stifled affordable housing in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, largely in the Northwest. That’s kept such housing segregated in the city’s South and West Sides.
“Hyperlocal control through aldermanic prerogative has really allowed for race-based fear to infiltrate what would otherwise be citywide, comprehensive planning,” said Patricia Fron, executive director of CAFHA. “So, we’re really allowing housing and community development decisions to be hindered by opposition to neighborhood racial change.”
You can find the report here.
The “aldermanic prerogative” in the new report’s title refers to a long-standing, though non-legislated, Chicago tradition: Individual aldermen have the power to initiate or block city actions in their wards. Other aldermen, and the City, defer to the local leader’s wishes.
The report represents the first-ever attempt to analyze and quantify the effects of this aldermanic prerogative “in a civil rights legal framework,” the study’s authors said.
A presentation on the report at Experimental Station (6100 S. Blackstone Ave.) on Aug. 9, quoted Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward), who called the tradition of aldermanic prerogative downright medieval.
“I often liken the City of Chicago [to] a feudal system, where the mayor is a sort of de-facto king, and each alderman is the lord—I guess lady, for female aldermen—of their individual fiefdom,” said Moore.
Using that power, aldermen have kept affordable housing out of whiter, wealthier parts of the city, mostly in the Northwest, said the report. As a result, “Chicago’s white, black, and Latinx residents live, to a significant degree, in separate neighborhoods and face distinct life outcomes,” the report said.
That separation perpetuates clear differences: 93 percent of Chicago families who have children and live at or below the poverty line are people of color, the report found. Just 7 percent of white families with children are poor. “Families of color below the poverty line are most likely to have worst-case housing needs, including facing severe rent burdens,” the study said.
Aldermen Joe Moreno (First Ward) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), of the Logan Square area, agreed that segregation has long harmed communities in Chicago.
The segregation findings from the “City Fragmented” study reflect wider, systemic issues in the country, said Rosa. “It should come as no surprise to anyone that the United States and the United States’ policymaking is racist and classist,” he said. “We see that in our courts. We see that in funding for our schools.”
But a major proposal from the report—moving to centralized planning—could backfire, the local leaders said. The report calls for “the City of Chicago to dismantle aldermanic prerogative and commit to comprehensive, city-wide planning,” according to a July 10 press release.
Such planning would look at which communities need affordable housing, as well as infrastructure and transportation investment. Resources would go to those areas, Fron said.
“It’s interesting… we heavily influenced the field of urban planning in the city of Chicago. And we don’t have a comprehensive plan,” she said.
Keep Local Control?
Both Moreno and Rosa have worked to expand affordable housing. But each took issue with the report’s centralized planning recommendation.
“The community should be careful what they wish for,” said Moreno. “If you go to citywide zoning with bureaucrats downtown appointed by the mayor, you’re going to lose a lot of local community control.”
By contrast, Moreno said, he currently runs all zoning changes through a local community group. (Zoning can greatly affect affordable housing placement.) In the First Ward, this has led to an increase in affordable housing, he said.
“I’ve shown that if we work with developers on site and let them know what we want, they’ll do it,” he said.
Rosa, too, warned against addressing segregation via centralizing power.
“Even if we were to move toward a centralized planning process,” Rosa said, “if the mayor is Rahm Emanuel, then I fully expect we’ll continue to see the building and development decisions being made that perpetuate the racism and classism that has historically marked U.S. policy.”
Additional recommendations from the report include applying a “racial equity lens” to urban planning decisions and making the zoning process more uniform across wards. The City should also limit when aldermen can deny affordable housing proposals, the report said. Denials should happen because, for example, a proposed building would be in a flood plain—”not for any reason that [an alderman] might have,” Fron said.
How Zoning and Committees Segregate
Aldermen have a number of tools to affect affordable housing. “One of the most powerful tools that they have is around zoning,” Fron said.
These local leaders can make zoning requirements for affordable housing particularly onerous in their wards. And so affordable housing developers will go where they know things will be easier, Fron said
“For instance, if you have to do, let’s say three community meetings…that’s time, that’s money,” Fron said. “You’ll see these wards that have whole checklists of things that a developer has to meet.”
Imposing those requirements often involves Zoning Advisory Committees (ZACs). These groups consult with the aldermen on zoning and other issues, and they most often occur in the Northwest. In those areas, the committees and constituencies frequently don’t want affordable housing—because of fears of racial and economic change, Fron said.
Those fears usually get expressed in terms of increased crime and decreased property values, “which we know are fallacies,” said Rosa.
“ZACs are often used not just to preserve the demographic makeup of a single ward but also as a means of preserving predominantly white populations within wards,” the report said.
Other Aldermanic Tools
Aside from their control over zoning, aldermen wield other power to shape where affordable housing goes, the report said. For example, they control city lots in their wards. As of 2017, the city owned 56 acres of city-owned land in majority white, non-poor areas. But none of that has gone to affordable housing, per the report.
Aldermen also control access to city funding. The report found that 90 percent of affordable housing units receiving such funds appeared outside of predominantly white, low-poverty areas. And evidence shows that developers never get funding for such units without aldermanic support.
“After multiple FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests and interviews with developers, there is no evidence of an affordable housing project receiving funds without a letter of aldermanic support,” the report said.
Other tools at aldermen’s disposal include evading the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) and using parliamentary procedures to delay affordable housing projects. That essentially blocks them, the report said. (The ARO requires developments that receive public funds or involve city-owned land to include 10 percent affordable housing units.)
Logan Square Affordable Housing
It might come as little surprise that aldermen would oppose limiting their own power—or prerogative. But both Moreno and Rosa have pushed to increase affordable housing in their Northwest wards, one of the new report’s major goals. The two leaders, however, both see local community control as key to that effort.
In the 35th Ward, community engagement has helped expand affordable housing, Rosa said. That involved open meetings and outreach about proposed affordable housing conducted in both English and Spanish.
“We’ve used the practice of aldermanic prerogative to implement community-driven zoning and development… that is inclusive, transparent and democratic,” he said. In the two meetings on upzoning for affordable housing Rosa has conducted, “the attendees overwhelmingly supported moving forward with the affordable housing projects,” he added.
As a result, the 35th Ward has two affordable housing projects in the works: Three of the units in the Latin United Community Housing Association’s “scattered-site” project have finished construction on Palmer Avenue in Logan Square. Construction on a 48-unit project in Albany Park will begin in October.
First Ward community meetings have similarly supported affordable housing, Moreno said. Moreno has delivered “hundreds, not dozens, hundreds more than the next highest alderman in terms of affordable housing in the last four years,” he said.
The First Ward accomplished that via a pilot program (along with Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. in the 27th Ward) upping the ARO requirements in those areas. Moreno’s ward also requires that developers build affordable housing on site, instead of paying offsets to build the units elsewhere.
“They all want to pay out of it,” Moreno said of the developers. “But every one of them finds a way to do it.”
Rosa’s Prerogative Fails
Rosa’s affordable housing efforts, in fact, put him on the wrong side of aldermanic prerogative. As the report outlines, Rosa tried to downzone a portion of Milwaukee Avenue. This would have triggered affordable housing requirements. However, the city zoning chairman “indefinitely deferred” the proposal, the report said.
The instance shows that aldermanic prerogative really works to maintain the status quo, Fron said.
“Another big takeaway from the report is that really aldermanic prerogative is a one-way street,” she said. “When aldermanic prerogative is used to challenge the status quo, it doesn’t really function the way it normally does.”
An Aldermanic Solution?
That experience might help explain Rosa’s opposition to centralized power. He and Moreno suggested different solutions than the report’s authors. Moreno said he would like to see constituents put pressure on aldermen and developers.
“I think that political pressure is really the best way,” he said. If aldermen and their constituents ask developers to include affordable housing, developers will respond, Moreno said. “They all say they can’t do the project if they have to put it on site. And we have shown the opposite. Yes, you can.”
For Rosa, the solution calls for bigger political changes. “I think, ultimately, that we as a society and as a government need to have a real intentional shift toward integrating our neighborhoods, towards addressing racism and economic injustice,” he said.
Of course, Alderman Rosa’s experience aside, aldermanic prerogative has largely worsened those issues in the past, the report’ findings showed.
“Aldermanic prerogative and the control over land use and zoning that it allows for—it’s really shaped the city,” Fron said. “Our city is changing, both racially and economically. We might look down the road and the city might look a lot different than it does today unless we start to change the system that we have right now.”