How aldermanic prerogative segregates Chicago - Metropolitan Planning Council

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How aldermanic prerogative segregates Chicago

Photo courtesy Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune

Ald. Anthony Napolitano, center, shown in 2015, opposed a plan to construct a seven-story building with about 300 housing units, with 30 affordable housing units

This article first appeared on June 29, 2018 on the Chicago Tribune's Commentary page.

Recently, five aldermen stood up for locating affordable housing near jobs and challenged the absolute power of a fellow alderman in a Chicago City Council zoning committee meeting.

True, a majority of aldermen sided with Far Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, in rejecting a proposed development with 30 units of affordable housing proposed for his predominantly white ward. It seems that political traditions die hard, even with a proposal that would be a slam dunk in meeting local needs, just steps from the CTA Blue Line Cumberland station, with reduced parking and easy transit access to the O’Hare International Airport jobs juggernaut.

In Chicago, aldermen control zoning changes in their wards. Chicago’s unwritten rule of aldermanic prerogative has long dictated that land use and zoning matters are handled by the local aldermen. Some argue this type of local control gives voice to constituents over what happens in their communities. And taking input from constituents is at the core of an alderman’s job.

But if you follow affordable housing proposals nationwide, opponents of affordable housing use the local-control handbook to thwart housing proposals.

So, in light of Chicago’s iron grip on local control, the most surprising part was that five aldermen actually voted against it. They came out against protectionism — against local control and for the greater good.

We see a chink in the armor of aldermanic prerogative, and here’s why it matters.

Government at every level has a long and troubling history of creating and enforcing racial and economic segregation under the pretext of “respecting local preferences.” While listening to constituents is a crucial part of being an elected official, bowing to exclusionary and even racist pressures should not be. And speaking of such pressures, holding a mirror up to our fellow residents of Chicago is long overdue. We are not saying everyone who opposes affordable housing is racist, but as residents we have to acknowledge that when we protest housing affordability in areas that lack it, we are contributing not only to Chicago’s segregated reality but to the political pressure to maintain it.

Aldermanic prerogative is deservedly on the hot seat, but over and over we see residents demanding that their elected officials maintain their separate realities. Voters have asked for it, and they’ve gotten it. Now we must all work together to change it.

The impact of a full century of decisions since the start of the Great Migration in 1916 is clear: Chicago’s zoning and land-use decisions have been concentrated in the hyper-local hands of 50 aldermen and their constituents, creating a landscape riven with the winners and losers of racial and economic segregation and all of its resulting inequities. It is a feudal system, rather than one that considers what is best for the city as a whole.

Can the committee’s 7-5 vote fault line be the start of writing a different story? We believe it can.

That starts with an explicit expectation that every community and ward work together to increase the city’s affordable housing supply, not only some.

Further, Chicago already has signaled that it values housing near mass transit with the 2015 strengthening of a transit-oriented development ordinance; we cannot relitigate matters of density and affordability on a case-by-case basis, and especially not in areas where affordability is lacking.

Finally, we need a transparent and accountable decision-making structure for what affordable developments the city will financially support. These are things we can do, and we must do. In the meantime, we plan to introduce an incremental step forward: legislation that limits aldermanic prerogative in wards where affordable housing is needed the most.

As a recent California law with a similar goal explained, “Local control must be about how a community meets its housing goals, not whether it meets those goals.”

Chicago is saddled with profound racial and economic segregation, the costs of which the Metropolitan Planning Council has painstakingly documented. We’ve deferred to local decision-makers on matters that should be citywide policy, and we’ve allowed individual and systemic racism to flourish. Over time, the means have changed but the impact persists. In today’s political climate there are numerous calls for empathy, mutual understanding and focusing our efforts on the common good. If we are serious about these ideals then let’s lead with action.

Ameya Pawar is alderman of Chicago’s 47th Ward. Marisa Novara is vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

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