Aldermen Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) and Nicholas Sposato (38th) at a 2017 City Council meeting. Napolitano recently invoked aldermanic prerogative to block an affordable housing proposal in his northwest-side ward. Credit: Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

A new study published by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance claims that “aldermanic prerogative”—a customary practice that isn’t articulated anywhere in city law—is being used to reinforce the boundaries of Chicago’s historically segregated communities.

Aldermanic prerogative is a longstanding tradition: If a local alderman objects to a development in her ward, other aldermen will reject that development as well. The same is true when an alderman champions a particular development in his ward. According to the study, aldermen can use this power to make their ward unappealing for affordable housing development and ultimately reject inclusive housing proposals.

“It’s not just influence, it’s the power to kill a project.” says Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and a contributor to the study. “[Developers] said it wasn’t even worth the effort in many wards because there’s a high cost associated with planning and it can be quickly scuttled by the alderman.”

The report also highlights aldermen’s power to “downzone” in their wards. Downzoning occurs when an area is assigned a lower development density than previously permitted, meaning developers can only propose housing within that limit. Downzoning constrains the number of housing units that a property could bring to the ward, thereby “artificially [limiting] the supply of dwelling units, inflating both housing and land costs in a neighborhood and eliminating the financial feasibility of affordable housing on a broader basis,” the study claims. Walz adds that once an area gets downzoned, “developers are put back into the aldermanic machine.”

Local zoning committees created by aldermen and made up of homeowners in the ward can also limit and revise proposed plans for affordable housing, forcing developers to invest in new architectural plans and zoning requests. The study argues that aldermanic control over zoning policy has resulted in the disproportionate use of downzoning in predominantly white wards, citing that 55% of all downzonings since 1970 have happened in 14 majority-white wards.

“Since 1970, the average majority-white ward has downzoned or landmarked 0.46 square feet of space for every remaining foot of multifamily zoning in their wards,” states the study, whereas “wards with a majority-black and/or Latinx population have downzoned 0.09 square feet for every remaining foot of multifamily zoning [in] their wards” over the same span of time. The use of downzoning in predominantly white and low-poverty wards has created a hostile environment for inclusive housing proposals—particularly affordable family housing—the study claims.

Developers who want to build it thus focus their attention on the few wards that are “safer bets—areas where affordable housing has previously been approved.” In segregated Chicago, this means housing suitable for lower-income families is concentrated in lower-income black and Latinx wards.

“On its face, this does not seem problematic,” says Patricia Fron, executive director of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, “but when we look at it from a historical perspective, it is very clear that the prerogative has been used to restrict access to white communities out of anti-black racism.”

The study claims that at the heart of aldermanic prerogative is political reputation. Whether it’s dealing with developers, constituents, or even the mayor, aldermen must “navigate a clamor of interests . . . compelling many aldermen to do not what is best for the city of even their ward but what will least damage their . . . chances of reelection.”

In a July 17 letter to the Chicago Tribune, Michael Sullivan seemed to confirm this point when he argued against the study’s claims. He writes that aldermanic prerogative helps homeowners keep their alderman accountable. “No one should have any zoning authority in my neighborhood except my alderman,” Sullivan writes, “Let my alderman wear the collar for the zoning decisions in my ward. Then I can reward or punish him at the ballot box.”

The study also claims that the result of constituent influence over zoning and development through aldermanic prerogative is “a culture where aldermen in predominantly white and low-poverty areas erect barriers to affordable housing to preserve the status quo.”

Meanwhile, other wards have to build more than their equitable share of affordable housing “because, if it is not built in their wards, it will not be built at all.” Fron adds that this struggle to accommodate affordable housing means “the city is unable to fulfill its civil rights obligations.”

“This is a matter of constituents controlling the look of the neighborhood, the racial makeup,” says Walz. “There is a practice here of essentially not voting, of deferring to the vote of one alderman out of 50. It is depriving the city of Chicago of a fair and objective process. It is allowing one person, or someone under the influence of their constituents, to make that decision, and that appears to be an unlawful delegation of power over land use and zoning in the city of Chicago.”  v