Feds probe Chicago aldermen’s veto power over affordable housing

Complaints say aldermen can be pressured to keep low-income housing out of affluent white neighborhoods

Chicago /
Dec.December 10, 2021 12:45 PM
Chicago City Hall and the old Cabrini-Green housing (Getty, WikiMedia / Victorgrigas)

Chicago City Hall and the old Cabrini-Green housing (Getty, WikiMedia / Victorgrigas)

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating claims that Chicago aldermen’s veto power may be contributing to discrimination against low-income minorities.

Housing activists filed a complaint over so-called aldermanic prerogative, a longtime Chicago tradition that gives them power to stop local developments, the Chicago Tribune reported.

They said the practice lets residents pressure aldermen to block affordable housing projects by saying they would lead to overcrowded schools and falling property values, keeping low-income minorities out of affluent white neighborhoods. The objections are often “camouflaged racial expressions,” the complaint said.

New York’s City Council confers a similar power to its members through a custom known as member deference. However, lawmakers who use it to reject affordable housing are often subject to withering criticism, as was the case when Council member Jimmy Van Bramer blocked such a project in Queens. Four years later, the same applicant came back with a smaller plan with deeper affordability that Van Bramer approved. And yesterday, Council members in Soho and Noho blessed a rezoning that will bring affordable housing, rejecting complaints from some high-earning locals that it would trigger overdevelopment.

HUD officials sent a letter to the aldermen on Dec. 1 asking them questions about the process and how they define it. Other questions for the aldermen include, “How do you use aldermanic prerogative? In what circumstances is it a useful tool? Do you support eliminating or restricting aldermanic prerogative over decisions affecting the siting and development of affordable housing? Why or why not? How would such restrictions best be implemented?”

The questionnaire also asks aldermen how they’ve seen the prerogative affect affordable housing in their wards or if they believe something else is affecting its viability or placement. HUD also asked whether aldermen are more likely to invoke the prerogative in affordable housing cases than others.

In addition, HUD’s survey asked about Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s executive order in 2019 that sought to curb the practice. While the order put a mostly symbolic ban on aldermanic prerogative, she hasn’t introduced policies to limit the aldermen’s power over zoning issues.

The aldermen have been given until Dec. 17 to answer HUD’s questions.

[CT] — Victoria Pruitt





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