Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
For decades, aldermen have used their “aldermanic prerogative” to reject affordable housing development, confining the city’s low-income residents, who are mostly black and brown, to a few areas of the city, a new report says.
Chicago’s aldermen enjoy a great deal of power in their respective jurisdictions, including the ability to block or restrict new housing development. And that authority—referred to as the aldermanic prerogative—has been used to preserve racial and economic segregation, and worsen the city’s affordability crisis.
That’s according to a recent report by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), which states that aldermen in majority-white, well-off wards have disproportionately deployed this authority to endorse racially motivated NIMBYism in their wards, and time and again rejected the development of dense and affordable housing for 80 years. Recently, this NIMBYism has not been exclusive to the city’s majority-white wards, which count 14 of Chicago’s 50 wards, while 18 are majority-black and 18 majority-Hispanic. According to the report, aldermen of more than half of Chicago’s wards did not accept a single multifamily home funded through a city loan program meant for such housing from 1992 to 2017.
The report traces this aldermanic power back to the 1930s, when Chicago’s city council members controlled the location of public housing sites, laying the groundwork for present-day segregation. In the decades since, aldermen have used powers and influence vested in them under the aldermanic prerogative to block new development through downzoning (reducing the permitted density of a zone), hindering access to city-financing, and controlling the fate of city-owned land. Via the report:
The result is a culture where aldermen in predominantly white and low-poverty areas erect barriers to family affordable housing to preserve the status quo; aldermen in wards that have faced chronic disinvestment are obliged to take more than an equitable share of affordable housing because, if it is not built in their wards, it will not be built at all, and there exists a demonstrated need among their constituents; and aldermen in gentrifying areas have diminished power to stave off the market forces creating an increasingly unaffordable housing landscape.
Below are some details about the mechanisms the aldermen use, and their consequences:
Downzoning and landmarking to limit density
Chicago’s aldermen have made robust use of downzoning and landmarking (tagging buildings as historically or architecturally significant, and therefore ineligible for demolition) to keep affordable housing out of their wards. These tactics have been aggressively deployed in white wards in particular, the report notes, to preempt dense development, restricting affordable and market-rate housing.
The result is stark: The 14 majority-white wards in the north and northwest sides of Chicago account for 55 percent of downzoned (in blue below) or landmarked land (in purple below) from 1970 to 2016. These moves not only restrict the overall supply of future housing in that area, but also give these aldermen greater control about what eventually gets built in that zone.
Overall, these white-majority wards, which make up 28 percent of total 50 wards, now contain 25 percent of the city’s multifamily zoned land, yet only 2 percent of the city’s multifamily housing—in part, because the low permitted density makes most multi-family projects financially unfeasible, the report’s authors say.
While there are likely some aldermen in Chicago who have downzoned to preserve affordability in their area, in the majority-white wards, downzoning has been disproportionately used, in conjunction with vetoing dense housing projects, to decrease affordability overall, according to Marisa Novara, who leads the housing, community development, and equity agenda at the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). (The center’s report on dismantling segregation in Chicago recommended weakening aldermanic powers.)
“The question is not the intent, the question is the outcome for me,” she said.
The map below, from the CAFHA report, shows that many of the areas that have been downzoned or landmarked saw large declines in affordable housing (in purple) over time:
So, how do aldermen go about making NIMBYist decisions? In many cases, they can set up formal or informal Zoning Advisory Committees (ZACs) at their discretion, made up of constituents, but who often are also commercial real estate developers and others who may have vested interests. These advisory committees can tack on conditions to their approval of proposed housing projects—and often ask the developers to reduce the number of affordable rentals, convert some units to condos, or limit the size of the apartments. All of these adjustments serve to limit the number of low-income families that may move in, even if they’re presented as achieving another purpose.
Sidestepping affordable housing requirements
In Chicago, the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) kicks in when something is asked of the city: city land, city funds, or a zoning change. It requires that 10 percent of units in the proposed housing projects be earmarked for residents earning at or below a certain percentage of the area median income, or the projects must pay a fee to a municipal pot of money for housing subsidies. Before it was revised in 2015, it was easier to opt out of building on-site affordable units, and in NIMBY wards, the aldermen often pushed developers to pay the in-lieu fees instead. Or, they vetoed the zoning moves that activated the ARO, according to the report. Before 2015, 82 percent of the developments that activated the ARO in white wards did not include on-site affordable units, and 67 percent of such projects in the rest of the wards opted out.
The ordinance was amended in 2015 to make high-income wards, in particular, more accountable to their share of on-site affordable housing. The result was that 17 percent of ARO-triggering developments in the majority-white wards opted out, whereas this was 24 percent in other wards. The number of affordable units constructed through the revised ARO in the 14 majority-white wards was 39; the rest of the wards built 94 total units.
Denying access to city funds
As with other cities, affordable housing developments draw from a number of different types of funding options at the state and local level. As it turns out: They need the aldermen’s support in order to get access to those streams in Chicago, which gives another way for NIMBY aldermen to impede construction. Per the report:
After multiple FOIA requests and interviews with developers, there is no evidence of a project receiving funds without a letter of aldermanic support.
From 1992 to 2018, 90 percent of the 3,000 units of multifamily housing built with the help of a particular type of city loan program specifically meant for multifamily housing were outside the white, well-off wards. The senior housing constructed with these loans, however, was more equitably distributed in the city, suggesting that “aldermen relax their use of zoning tools to restrict housing development considerably for senior housing,” per the report. That said, only 5 wards, or 10 percent of total wards, accepted 59 percent of all multifamily units funded through these city loans, while most of Chicago’s wards, including majority non-white ones, did not accept a single such development through this loan program.
“It's true that generally as a city we have limited where low-income families can live,” Novara said.
Controlling city-owned lots
According to the report, no city-owned parcel of land has been used to build a single affordable dwelling unit in the majority white and low-poverty wards on the north side of the city. The sale of such land triggers the ARO, and so aldermen can easily impede the sale or say they’re slotting the land for other purposes.
According to the report, 93 percent of the developments on city-owned land made through the New Homes for Chicago program were located outside of low-poverty areas, the report found.
How aldermen wield these powers
Alderman Anthony Napolitano of Ward 41 often comes up in discussions about aldermanic prerogative as an example of classic NIMBYism. In 2017, his ward’s ZAC refused a 30-condo development. The project had initially been proposed as a rental complex with 44 units, with some units income-capped as per the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance, but it was revised again and again after continual pushback in community meetings. Apart from traffic concerns, residents also expressed worries about the kind of renters the building would attract. “I'm paying massive taxes to live here, so I want people who are living the same way as me,” a woman said at one of the community meetings per DNAinfo. “I want people who are invested in the community, and who are going to live here a long time.”
Napolitano also vetoed another project including affordable units proposed in his area citing concerns about density (and even weighed in on projects in the neighboring 45th ward). When these projects have come up in the city council zoning committee, most aldermen reliably side with Napolitano. (His office did not respond to CityLab’s questions.)
But as the report notes, due to zoning restrictions—which aldermen influence—80 percent of the geographic area of Chicago is not eligible for multi-family housing. Resistance to multi-family affordable housing is not exclusive to these majority-white wards. Here’s what Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. told The Chicago Tribune about his majority-black 27th ward:
“I’ve had black South Siders who say they don’t want low-income residents in their neighborhoods; they want market-rate housing. “I know we can all live together. There are fears and ignorance. This issue isn’t just a North Side thing; it’s a city of Chicago thing.”
Some aldermen say they block redevelopment projects for different reasons: Democratic Socialist Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, of the majority-Hispanic 35th ward, said he has used his aldermanic prerogative to block redevelopment projects in order to stave off displacement in his gentrifying neighborhood. He has simultaneously introduced new rules and practices in his ward that he hopes will make the zoning process more transparent and inclusive for working class community members.
“This is an example of the way in which aldermanic prerogative can be used towards expanding affordability, ensuring that we have development decisions that are equitable and that address the community concerns of affordability, and ensuring that we have diversity both racially and economically in our community,” Ramirez-Rosa told CityLab. “I do think that there is some measure of accountability through the aldermanic prerogative system that we have because it demystifies the zoning process for local residents.”
Recently, he announced his intention to downzone a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue so that he gets more control about the kind of projects that get built on that stretch, and can make sure there’s a way to preserve low-cost housing—or include it in future housing projects. But his proposal has been stalled in city council.
This, Patricia Fron of CAFHA said, is exactly the problem with this system.
“Aldermanic prerogative really is more of a one-way street—when it is used to use to block affordable housing, it is acquiesced to among aldermen and within the city's administration as well, but when it's to advance affordable housing, it can be and often is blocked,” said Fron. “It’s kind of a glitch in the system.”
An alternative to aldermanic prerogative?
Aldermanic prerogative has been cited time and again in Chicago as one of the chief obstacles to dismantling racial and economic segregation, and with this new report, the conversation around it has again heated up. Policy groups, housing advocates—including CAFHA—and some aldermen want to chip away at this fragmented
“Let’s put in a comprehensive plan to create affordable housing throughout the city and ensure that each ward essentially takes on its fair share of providing for affordable housing,” Fron said. “To do that, it's going to take an assessment rooted in racial equity.”
Fron argues that it also brings relief for aldermen like John Arena, of the 45th ward, who is pushing for affordable, dense housing in his majority-white ward, despite significant pushback. “In a lot of ways, aldermanic prerogative is not just a benefit for aldermen, it’s also a burden,” Fron said. “They’re risking their political longevity [because of] the position that it puts them in.”
But what would dismantling this power mean for aldermen like Ramirez-Rosa, who believe that, with the right safeguards and guardrails, this system can work for his working-class constituents? While he said he’s not opposed to getting rid of aldermanic prerogative, he said he wants to ensure that any alternative allows his constituents to weigh in on decisions affecting their neighborhoods. Overall, he simply isn’t convinced that without being very intentional, the city would appropriately address Chicago’s deeply rooted problems.
“Because we live in a racist, classist society, because we live in a racist city, unless we organize and actually shift the balance of power, any process that we create is going to continue to perpetuate that inequality,” he said.
Progressive aldermen like Ameya Pawar of the diverse 47th ward support dismantling aldermanic privilege, a position he stated in an op-ed he coauthored with MPC’s Novara in The Chicago Tribune earlier this year. He and Novara have since crafted an ordinance that seeks to limit aldermanic powers in the wards with the greatest dearth of affordable housing. According to The Tribune, the legislation is supported by Ramirez-Rosa, Arena, and a handful of other aldermen organizing with housing advocates for greater affordability in every part of the city.