Chicago has had a troubling history with the practice of “aldermanic prerogative.” While getting approval for development projects can be an onerous process in any city, Chicago is unique in that this process is dependent on the will of each individual alderman. When it comes to zoning, wards act like small fiefdoms where aldermen have the power to veto development projects. Some residents might find this appealing. It allows aldermen to negotiate hard with developers in order to guarantee certain amenities. But, there is a flip side. Aldermen can also veto affordable housing units and development projects that would help end the city’s painful history of racial and class segregation. The dividing line between the wealthy Northeast and the impoverished Southwest is partially drawn by the arbitrary power that aldermen have over zoning practices.
Elizabeth Wood, the first executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority, believed that affordable housing could play an active role in racially integrating Chicago. Her vision for public housing favored modestly sized units that were evenly dispersed throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this vision never came to be. White aldermen from wealthy neighborhoods were opposed to locating public housing in their areas. Reluctantly, the CHA adopted a public housing strategy based on building large isolated high-rises located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Because of this, almost all of the city’s subsidized family units went in Chicago’s South and West neighborhoods. In the late ’60s, a federal judge ruled this practice illegal, but by that time it was too late.
Since then, Chicago has turned its back on building public housing. This means that building affordable units becomes the responsibility of the private sector. But, even if the private sector is ready to provide the units, community outrage against the possibility of low-income neighbors can convince aldermen to veto projects. This is essentially what has happened in the 41st Ward, where Ald. Anthony Napolitano turned his back on a 299-unit apartment building. The developer — GlenStar — said Napolitano changed his decision because the building would include affordable units and has decided to take the matter to court. It might seem ironic that affordable housing advocates and developers are on the same side of a housing issue, but in this case, they are. Chicago desperately needs more affordable housing, but as long as “aldermanic prerogative” allows for the capricious vetoing of projects, it will never get built and Chicago will remain a segregated city.
— Marco Rosaire Rossi, Chicago
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