Aldermanic Prerogative Fuels Segregation and Violates Black, Latino Chicagoans’ Civil Rights: Federal Officials

Video: The WTTW News Spotlight Politics team discusses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development letter and other top stories. (Produced by Paul Caine)

The decades-old tradition of giving Chicago City Council members the final authority over housing developments in their wards fuels segregation in Chicago and violates the civil rights of Black and Latino residents by limiting the creation of affordable housing, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development obtained by WTTW News Tuesday.

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Acting on a civil rights complaint filed in November 2018 against the city by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, a probe by the agency known as HUD found that aldermanic prerogative has created a hyper-segregated city rife with racism and gentrification.

“The practice appears to be a blunt tool that blocks and deters integrative affordable housing while going well beyond what is necessary to provide a forum for local concerns – in other words, precisely the sort of ‘artificial, arbitrary and unnecessary barrier’” prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court when it upheld the Fair Housing Act, according to the Oct. 24 letter from Lon Meltesen, the director of the agency’s region that includes Chicago.

Read the full letter.

Patricia Fron, the co-executive director of the alliance, a coalition of groups that have urged city officials to take steps to desegregate the city and provide more affordable housing, said she was hopeful that Mayor Brandon Johnson would act to end aldermanic prerogative.

“It is clear Chicago needs real, systemic change,” Fron said.

When the complaint was filed, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel led the city. After he left office, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot “did not proffer a justification for the continued existence of this practice,” according to the letter, even though she campaigned against aldermanic prerogative, blaming it not only for breeding corruption but also for making Chicago one of the most segregated cities in the nation.

But Lightfoot never proposed overhauling the city’s zoning code, the ultimate authority on what can be built on each street in Chicago, and who gets to change those standards, leaving the heart of aldermanic prerogative untouched, along with the structural forces undergirding the city’s inequity.

Alderpeople exercise their prerogative at every committee meeting and at every council meeting on items ranging from sign permits to liquor licenses. But most of alderpeople’s historic clout comes from the fact that they alone have had the power to approve — or veto — proposals of all sizes.

That unwritten code also calls on other alderpeople to mind their own business and vote along with the alderperson whose ward includes the project.

Only once during Lightfoot’s tenure did the City Council vote to defy aldermanic prerogative. That December 2021 vote came over the objections of Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) to allow an apartment complex with 297 units — including 59 set aside for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans — to be built on the border with northwest suburban Park Ridge.

That development has yet to be built.

Aldermanic prerogative also shaped the future of the planned Chicago casino. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) was the only alderperson whose ward included one of the finalists to welcome the controversial development. That played no small role in Lightfoot’s decision to select Bally’s plan to build the casino in River West.

Supporters of aldermanic prerogative tout it as the best way to ensure that Chicago residents live in neighborhoods governed by one of their own: someone who lives near them, understands their issues and is not only accessible — but also accountable to them on Election Day.

However, allowing each of Chicago’s 50 alderpeople a veto over housing developments in their wards allowed representatives of wards with a majority of White residents to “block, deter or downsize” proposals to build affordable housing, Meltesen wrote.

“As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-White wards that already have the least affordable housing,” Meltesen wrote.

That “disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic households, who are far more likely than White households to need and qualify for affordable housing” and “perpetuates segregation,” Meltesen wrote.

The federal probe identified several hundred affordable housing units approved by the Chicago Department of Housing in wards with a majority of White residents that were blocked at the request of that ward’s alderperson and never built, Meltesen wrote.

“This investigation identified several instances of opposition replete with coded racial animus informing aldermen’s decisions to veto affordable housing proposals,” Meltesen wrote.

Several alderpeople defended aldermanic prerogative to federal officials, saying it was necessary to ensure “local considerations are considered in development decisions,” according to the letter.

However, the probe found that affordable housing developments were blocked by individual alderpeople “even in the absence of any articulated local concern, and even where concerns are clearly invoked as pretext to block integrative affordable housing.”

Meltesen invites Johnson’s administration “an opportunity to resume discussions towards informal resolution.”

A spokesperson for Corporation Counsel Mary Richardson Lowry said the city's Law Department is "always open to voluntary resolution, as evidenced by our multiple meetings with both the complainants and HUD.”

The letter was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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