In the wake of the latest blow to affordable housing construction on the northwest side—a City Council zoning committee no vote last week on a proposed development with 30 affordable units in the 41st ward—advocates and aldermen have joined forces on a new ordinance package. The proposed new rules would give affordable housing proposals the same due process in City Council that strip clubs currently enjoy.

To get any project approved anywhere in the city, developers have to: Submit their application to the city’s Department of Planning and Development and get the green light there. Then, get a yes vote from the Plan Commission, then another one from the zoning committee, and finally have an up or down vote by the full City Council. As the saga of the proposal in the 41st Ward showed, this process leaves plenty of room for aldermen to intervene with their own agendas and exercise their prerogative—even though city law doesn’t require local aldermen’s approval for projects to be built in their wards.

For years, aldermanic prerogative and weakness of the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance has made it almost impossible to build affordable housing for families in some of the city’s wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods. Sponsored by aldermen Chris Taliaferro, Sue Sadlowski Garza, Toni Foulkes, Scott Waguespack, Ameya Pawar, Deb Mell, and John Arena, a pair of proposed ordinances take aim at the biggest stumbling blocks for fair housing development.

One of the new ordinances would require that any proposed affordable housing development in a ward with less than ten percent affordable rental units receive automatic approval from the Plan Commission if the body doesn’t vote on the proposal within 120 days for the application being submitted. The same goes for zoning committee approval if the committee doesn’t vote on the proposal within 120 days of Plan Commission approval. As it turns out, this is exactly what happens when someone’s trying to open a strip club or other adult business in Chicago. Adult businesses have to apply for special use permits with the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals and for years they faced de-facto denials because the Board would indefinitely postpone votes on their applications. In 2005, an amendment was added to Chicago’s zoning code to protect these businesses from such “pocket vetoes.”

In an attempt to limit aldermanic prerogative—the City Council custom that affords aldermen wide latitude to veto development proposals in their wards—the ordinances would require aldermen to present hard evidence about any possible negative impacts the development might have on their ward. It wouldn’t be sufficient to simply claim—as 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano did last week—that according to his calculations, there’s already sufficient affordable housing in the area. Arguments about local resident opposition to the project also wouldn’t cut it. 

The proposed ordinances would also limit developers’ ability to pay opt-out fees instead of building affordable units and mandate more “family” affordable housing—apartments with two, three, and four bedrooms.