Unfettered Aldermanic Prerogative - Metropolitan Planning Council

Skip to main content

Unfettered Aldermanic Prerogative

Summary

Direct aldermanic power toward the community good, not against it. Unfettered aldermanic prerogative—the custom in Chicago’s City Council to allow each alderman to direct zoning and permit decisions within his or her ward—perpetuates segregation, creates disparities in how we invest in communities and invites political corruption.

As a result of this abuse, over the past year Chicago has experienced a federal complaint and lawsuit against the city, proposed legislation to curb its excesses, and an FBI investigation into two longstanding aldermen. The city needs systemic changes to upend this system, but first, note that these changes only work in the context of a full-scale revamp of how zoning, planning and community investment functions for the good of the entire city. See “Start Comprehensive Planning at the Department of Planning and Development” for more detail on this needed transformation to how the city of Chicago plans.

Second, as MPC noted in a Chicago Tribune op-ed co-written with Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, the antidote to too much power is not zero power. Aldermanic prerogative doesn’t need to be eliminated but does need common-sense limitations. Community residents and their elected officials should have a say in shaping their neighborhoods, but when it comes to affordable housing, community input should be in the form of how, not if.

Reform Ward-Level Zoning

Ward-level control over zoning is the opposite of best practice. A 2016 study found that the greater the level of involvement by local government and residents in development approval, the greater the segregation, concluding that “land use decisions cannot be concentrated in the hands of local actors” (Lens and Monkkonen, Yang and Jargowsky, 2006).

Recommendation: Revise the zoning ordinance to prohibit unrestricted ward level control over zoning. With a citywide comprehensive plan and commitment to racial equity, each zoning decision will be evaluated as to whether it is in accordance with the plan and advances racial equity. Small matters such as signage permits should be centralized.

Transparent, Accountable Process for Affordable Housing

Under the current system, aldermen can block affordable housing for any reason or no reason whatsoever. The development approval process needs transparency and accountability, and needs to adhere to citywide goals and policy for the equitable distribution of affordable housing.

Recommendation: Create consistent guidelines for the development approval process that establish time limits by which a proposal must advance. The Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance, introduced by Ald. Ameya Pawar (47) in July 2018 with 27 sponsors, provides a roadmap upon which to build:

• The Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance would apply to any project with affordable residential units in a planned development or zoning change that triggers the ARO that is proposed in a ward where less than 10 percent of its occupied rental housing is affordable to persons at 60 percent AMI or below (see map of which wards have more and which less than 10 percent affordability)

• When such a development is proposed, the Plan Commission or City Council must take action on the application within 90 days or it is automatically deemed approved

• If rejected, it is referred to the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). The ZBA will review the development application with fact-based criteria. The ZBA is the final decision maker, and they must document, in writing, the reasons for its decision

Eliminate Aldermanic Approval for Financing

Before a development even gets to the point of being indefinitely delayed, many never make it past “Go” because of required aldermanic letters of support to be considered for city financing (a policy the Illinois Housing Development Authority eliminated at the state level in 2012).

Recommendation: As outlined in the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s report, A City Fragmented, “Remove the evidence of aldermanic/community support and letter of aldermanic support requirement from the Multi-Family Loan Program, Qualified Allocation Plan, and any internal city procedures related to the review of affordable housing applications for public financing. Rather than obligate developers to secure aldermanic support, the city could require applicants to certify that their proposed request for financing is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. If an alderman opposes a project, they could submit comments based upon a set of specific and limited reasons. Such reasons might include the proposed project perpetuating segregation or being located in a flood plain. In this manner, local officials would be required to make public the reasons for their opposition and those reasons must be factual and clearly related to rational interests in the “sticks and bricks” of the project, and not the demographics of the residents of the proposed project. Moreover, the opposition must be consistent with treatment of non-affordable housing plans. Any selective opposition by an alderman would not be considered legitimate.

Finally, financing decisions with public funds should be guided by a transparent, accountable Qualified Allocation Plan that proactively spells out the city’s priorities consistent with the comprehensive plan.

Timeline

100 Day Actions
  • Form a task force to issue recommendations for the most comprehensive and actionable path forward.
First Year Actions and Goals

Guided by the task force recommendations, introduce and pass legislation that

  • Revises the zoning ordinance to prohibit unrestricted ward level control over zoning;
  • Creates consistent guidelines for the development approval process that establish time limits by which a proposal must advance; and
  • Removes the aldermanic/community support and letter of aldermanic support requirement related to the review of affordable housing applications for public financing.
First Term Goals
  • Evaluate affordable housing development—in process and completed - in all wards, to measure progress toward a more equitable distribution of affordable housing.

Additional Considerations

Why the time is right

If the past year’s federal complaint and lawsuit against the city and proposed legislation to curb the excesses of aldermanic prerogative were not enough, the degree of abuse detailed in FBI investigations into two longstanding aldermen must be. Allegations of attempting to trade Viagra, masseuse parlor visits and private property tax appeal business in exchange for zoning changes have made painfully clear that unfettered aldermanic prerogative is not only a poor substitute for citywide plans and goals and perpetuates segregation, but also breeds corruption.

A city that has long looked the other way in the face of these abuses is beginning to demand accountability and change. In a sharp break from any previous mayoral elections, in this cycle candidates are being asked repeatedly about and being judged by their stance on aldermanic prerogative. The current administration has acknowledged the need for a “floodlight of transparency” in the zoning process and suggested time limits on developments advancing to avoid the tactic of indefinite delay.

It is not every day that an FBI investigation involves one alderman wearing a wire on another and causes both to lose their powerful chairmanships of committees. If we will ever have the justification and political will to create citywide prioritization of affordable housing, it is now.

What it will take
  • While the way that aldermanic prerogative functions is unwritten, legislative action by City Council is required to put the necessary parameters in place.
  • As noted in “Start Comprehensive Planning at the Department of Planning and Development,” we need simultaneous legislation to centralize more zoning decisions, thus bringing Chicago in line with other cities such as New York and Los Angeles, as well as a citywide comprehensive plan rooted in racial equity.
  • The new mayor should form a task force to recommend the appropriate legislation and best path forward. Likely members include City Council members active on these issues, policy and community development/community organizing leaders, data experts and land use/affordable housing attorneys. 
Alignment with other Initiatives and Priorities of City or Partners

Two strong partners are the Shriver Center and the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance

MPC’s Blogs and Data Points on community development and equity issues such as this are made possible in part by the Chicago Community Trust – Seale Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Bowman Lingle Charitable Trust, the Conant Family Foundation, and individual donors.

This page can be found online at http://www.metroplanning.org/multimedia/publication/914

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
312 922 5616 info@metroplanning.org

Sign up for newsletter and alerts »

Shaping a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous greater Chicago region

For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

Donate »