Aldermanic Prerogative: Challenging a Controversial Tool

 /  June 3, 2021, 11:34 a.m.


35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s victory for affordable housing in Logan Square, a notably gentrified Chicago neighborhood, both signified a triumph for those fighting for low-income housing and raised important questions over the way aldermanic influence is used in Chicago politics. Over the past 20 years, Logan Square gained a reputation as a trendy Chicago neighborhood with rapidly increasing housing prices, which drove out Hispanic residents in the area. As of 2017, the white population surpassed the Hispanic population, largely due to the rising price of housing.

Promoting affordable housing was one of Ramirez-Rosa’s main promises in his 2019 reelection campaign. In August 2020 he worked with Chicago residents and public officials to secure a seven-story apartment building in Logan Square with 100 percent affordable housing for low and moderate-income residents (“100 percent affordable housing” generally refers to housing affordable for those earning up to 60 percent of the area median income). Given the rapidly increasing prices in gentrified Chicago neighborhoods, the powerful sway aldermanic prerogative has on Chicago housing policy carries even more weight and controversy. 

A Special Aldermanic Power

Aldermanic prerogative is a special power for aldermen to block city actions in their jurisdiction based on what they believe to be best for their particular ward. Because much of this prerogative is based on unwritten agreements and arrangements between officials, its specific powers and limits are relatively unclear, but it has been used historically in order to make judgement calls on zoning in particular wards and to accomplish tasks deemed necessary by the alderman for their particular ward. This government feature is unique to Chicago and has been hotly debated. Supporters say it allows aldermen to address issues unique to their ward and to protect the interests of their constituents, particularly in regards to creating and protecting affordable housing for residents. 

Those opposed, however, cite the inconsistency of law in Chicago’s fifty wards and its potential for corruption. In particular, many cite the inconsistency of zoning decisions as a key part of the gentrification and lack of affordable housing impacting many Chicago neighborhoods. When laws surrounding the required amount of affordable housing in a given area are subject to the discretion of aldermen, and aldermen have the power to determine which projects get passed and which do not, there is a lack of consistency across Chicago neighborhoods that perpetuates gentrification and color lines in the city. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent 05-20-2019 Executive Order to restrict the practice has fueled debate from residents and politicians on both sides of the issue on how aldermanic privilege can both encourage and protect against gentrification.

Aldermanic prerogative has generally functioned as an unwritten understanding, not an official part of Chicago law. The practice began in the mid-nineteenth century, when aldermen were expected to represent the interest of property owners in the areas they represented. This power increased by the 1890s to allow them veto power regarding zoning and other concerns particular to their residents like alcohol consumption and tree-cutting. These aldermen were dubbed “little mayors'' and faced controversy, with critics arguing the practice caused inconsistency between Chicago’s neighborhoods and even encouraged corruption. However, the practice continued in the same manner until 1955, when Mayor Richard J. Daley denied aldermanic veto power and attempted to centralize zoning practices, but changes in zoning ordinances were still left to aldermen and continued to allow them power with regards to zoning policy. An ethics ordinance in 1997 made the policy more public and transparent to citizens but did not end the practice by any means. Even today, the practice of aldermanic prerogative has significant sway in Chicago politics and continues to affect policy decisions.

For supporters of aldermanic prerogative, this power means aldermen can override the city to make decisions that help their residents, with whom they are more closely connected. However, opponents critique how this inconsistency in government directly leads to aldermanic corruption and more segregated neighborhoods.

Controversies Over Affordable Housing

Gentrification is one particularly prominent topic relating to aldermanic prerogative in Chicago, as the practice can further segregate the city by keeping low-income residents out of wealthier wards. Since the 1930s, aldermen have had significant control over where public housing was built, which contributes to the present-day color lines throughout the city. To this day, segregation has been largely maintained through the same practices which established it: aldermanic control over zoning. 

A 2018 report by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance found that the 14 majority-white wards in the north and northwest sides of Chicago contained 55 percent of the city’s “downzoned” (a process by which allowed density is reduced) or landmarked land from 1970 to 2016. These practices have allowed majority-white wards to limit the amount of affordable housing available in their neighborhoods. The problem of providing affordable multi-family housing has been an issue in particular: 80 percent of the geographic area of Chicago is unable to be used for multi-family housing. 

This segregation has been accomplished through downzoning, landmarking, restricting access in majority-white areas to city loan programs meant for affordable housing, and other exercises of aldermanic prerogative. Downzoning in particular is an interesting facet of this prerogative, as it has been used both to preserve affordable housing in some Chicago neighborhoods and to decrease available affordable housing in majority-white wards. Additionally, landmarking has been a notably corrupt use of prerogative to maintain segregated areas, as aldermen can easily excuse this practice by saying they are earmarking land for other purposes in order to avoid having to accommodate affordable housing in their ward.

The outcome of these practices, according to the Fair Housing Alliance report, “is a culture where aldermen in predominantly white and low-poverty areas erect barriers to family affordable housing to preserve the status quo” and “aldermen in gentrifying areas have diminished power to stave off the market forces creating an increasingly unaffordable housing landscape.” A 2018 study found that, in general, there is little affordable housing on Chicago’s North Side, with an overabundance on the South and West sides. This leads to poor residents of Chicago being centered in areas where affordable housing is plentiful; thus, schools and transportation are poorly funded, leading to poorer job opportunities, which fuels the cycle and allows little hope for escape from generational poverty.

In 2018, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, on behalf of neighborhood organizations in opposition to aldermanic privilege, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the practice, saying that aldermanic prerogative “illegally perpetuate[s] the city’s segregated housing patterns.” The complaint states that “aldermen often hide behind local zoning advisory councils created for the purpose of acting as buffers for such decisions, while residents often couch their objections in terms of a project’s density, height, congestion and traffic to mask their racial animus.” Thus, opponents once again cite how this level of control over their respective wards, often even with the support of its residents, allows aldermen to keep affordable housing, and therefore poor residents, out of already wealthy areas.

This lawsuit was seemingly prompted by the City Council's decision to allow 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano  to veto a plan for a 297-unit luxury apartment complex that would have included 30 units for low and moderate-income residents. The Shriver Center’s complaint calls for affordable housing in all of Chicago’s wards, not just majority-Black and Hispanic areas, and to end aldermen’s power to control the building of affordable housing. Their report describes how “the unchecked and unwritten code of aldermanic prerogative has served as the sentry of Chicago’s color lines and has detrimentally shaped the city’s neighborhoods over time resulting in: a reduction of land area available for multifamily development, the consequential rising rents and loss of population, and vast disparities in community investment by race.”

The Flipside: Aldermanic Prerogative In Favor of Affordable Housing

Despite public outcry on how aldermanic privilege shapes and strengthens color lines in Chicago, some individual aldermen have used their veto power to preserve affordable housing in gentrified areas. These aldermen, and some supporters of aldermanic prerogative, demonstrate how this unique facet of Chicago government has some benefits to low-income residents.

For example, 45th Ward Ald. John Arena is working for affordable housing in his majority-white ward through downzoning, in order to preserve land for low-cost housing. Ald. Ramirez-Rosa of the majority-Hispanic 35th ward has used aldermanic prerogative to prevent low-income residents from being pushed out of his gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood. He intended to downzone part of Milwaukee Avenue to encourage low cost housing in that area, but his plan has been stalled by the city council. This points to a larger issue in the system: aldermanic prerogative is often used to block affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods but has been met with backlash when attempting to help lower income residents.

25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez made a similar effort in 2019. He pushed for a 434-unit apartment project in Pilsen to expand its proportion of affordable units from 20 to 30 percent in order to keep housing affordable amidst growing gentrification in the area, a decision which was supported by voters in his ward. 

Sigcho-Lopez also opposed a proposal to landmark over 900 buildings and murals in Pilsen because it would force Hispanic residents to sell their residences and businesses if they could not pay to restore their buildings. Mayor Lightfoot stated she supported the designation in order to protect public art representing the culture of immigrant residents from Mexico. Sigcho-Lopez’s opposition to the proposed landmark designation shows how aldermen may have a different perspective on their residents’ needs. In this case, aldermanic prerogative allowed Sigcho-Lopez to guarantee affordable housing to his residents and prevent policies that would drive out low-income residents.

Challenges to Aldermanic Prerogative

Despite these potential benefits to low-income residents, many have brought challenges to aldermanic prerogative. Scaling back this prerogative was one of Lightfoot’s major campaign promises in 2019. She once said that aldermanic prerogative “breeds corruption. Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the City Council’s own interest.” Lightfoot argued that aldermanic privilege has historically benefited wealthy neighborhoods and individuals and often actively worked against low-income Chicagoans. She called it “a tool that for generations had been used by the powerful to build a system that excludes, disinvests and isolates working people.”

Soon after Lightfoot took office, her Executive Order 2019-2 asked departments in the City of Chicago to analyze and change their practices to minimize or get rid of aldermanic prerogative altogether. Her report changed the condoning of aldermanic prerogative in the legal system from a requirement to just a recommendation, in an attempt to minimize the practice. 

For example, the Department of Housing’s Preserving Communities Together (PCT) program, which rehabilitates vacant properties, used to require a letter from the alderman of the particular ward in support of any changes. Under Lightfoot, this practice has been changed to state that the alderman will be notified of an application for PCT rather than requiring their support to move forward with the program. Although aldermanic privilege still has sway in Chicago policy, aldermen have less direct control over decisions in their wards, and policy is more standardized across the different wards.

Despite these measures to minimize the effects of aldermanic privilege, there is certainly still tremendous room for discussion on how aldermanic privilege should—or should not—dictate politics in Chicago in the future. Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at the Shriver Center, points not only to the damage aldermanic prerogative can have on low-income residents, but also how these practices are limiting other efforts to address the housing issues Chicago is facing. Walz suggests that “not only is the city possibly violating civil rights laws by allowing aldermen to block affordable housing efforts, it’s missing out on the opportunity to thoughtfully integrate and plan a model city.” She proposes that, by doing away with these practices, Chicago politicians might be able to more systematically address the segregation and affordable housing issues plaguing the city.

On the other hand, Ramirez-Rosa doubts that the greater political system of Chicago would ever work in the interests of low-income residents. He thus sees aldermanic prerogative as a way to represent the interests of his constituents. He claims that “because we live in a racist, classist society, because we live in a racist city, unless we organize and actually shift the balance of power, any process that we create is going to continue to perpetuate that inequality.” To supporters like him, aldermanic prerogative defends the interests of minority groups and low-income residents, particularly where the greater political system does little to protect them.

The future of aldermanic privilege is still uncertain. Lightfoot’s plans seem to indicate a decline in aldermanic power, yet a practice so ingrained in Chicago politics likely will not disappear quickly. However, activists for affordable housing on both sides of the issue are determined to find a solution to the housing problems impacting low-income residents. Monica Dillon, an activist working for affordable housing, summarizes this problem: “If you lose your job, you should be able to live in your neighborhood. If you become elderly and disabled, you should be able to live in your neighborhood. Every neighborhood should have varying housing to accommodate a lifespan.” Aldermanic privilege has been used both for and against this goal, and it will be up to current Chicago aldermen, politicians, and residents to determine whether it survives.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Ken Lund and can be found here.

Molly Morrow


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