Latest affordable housing win in City Council strikes a blow to exclusionary policies

It’s just one modest development in a city that houses millions of people. But it’s significant.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting on Dec. 15 at City Hall.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting on Dec. 15 at City Hall.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Last week, the Chicago City Council approved a 297-unit apartment complex to be built by Glenstar Properties at 8535 W. Higgins Road, near O’Hare Airport, the Kennedy Expressway and the CTA Blue Line.

It’s just one modest development in a city that houses millions of people. But it strikes a body blow to exclusionary policies and practices that have oppressed people of color for decades.

The Council’s 33-13 vote overruled the fierce objections of 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano.

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For several years, Napolitano has pushed a plethora of arguments against the development, which would include affordable housing. His Far Northwest Side ward is already too dense, he says, and needs more commercial development, not new housing.

The area is also overwhelmingly white and middle-to-upper-class. Napolitano denies his community’s opposition is racially motivated.

A “yes” vote, Napolitano warned his colleagues, would threaten their aldermanic prerogative, the right of every alderperson to have the final say on housing and zoning in their wards.

“I’m in the hot seat right now,” he declared at the meeting. “You’re going to be in this hot seat tomorrow. And when it goes around our ward, your zoning committees … and it goes around you to decide whether this is best for your ward, and it goes straight to City Hall and then right to zoning, and you vote ‘no’ and everyone else votes ‘yes’ because they’re told to, you’re going to be in the same exact predicament I’m in right now.”

They are being “told to,” he suggests, by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who championed the development.

“If only,” Lightfoot must be thinking, she could order that feisty and recalcitrant crew of council members.

Lightfoot, housing activists and even Napolitano’s colleagues argue Chicago suffers from a massive deficiency in affordable housing and the development would benefit workers who want to live near O’Hare.

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In all, 20% of the apartments in the Glenstar development — 59 units — are designated for low- and moderate-income families.

To my knowledge, this would be the first development of its kind in that community. There’s a reason for that. Chicago has been hyper-segregated throughout and long before my lifetime.

I grew up on the South Side during the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who directed a goodly portion of his political muscle at keeping Black families hemmed into decrepit public housing on the South and West sides.

Since I started reporting in the 1980s, I have learned, time and again, that endemic racial discrimination and segregation is an ugly fact of life in Chicago.

Powerful political interests have resisted opening up white neighborhoods, conspiring to keep the races apart by hiding behind arguments about community control, density and the like.

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“Housing is at the heart of segregation in this city,” Lightfoot declared Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the connection between aldermanic prerogative and housing in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

HUD is looking into a 2018 complaint filed by housing activists and lawyers, “alleging that allowing aldermen de facto veto power over most development proposals in their wards promotes housing discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods,” according to the Tribune.

I frequently ride the Blue Line to O’Hare in the bleary-eyed, pre-dawn hours, along with dozens of Black and Latino service workers trekking to jobs near or at the airport. Some commute two hours each way from their homes on the South and West sides.

Some, I suspect, yearn to live minutes away from the job. I know I would. Until now, they could not, either because they can’t afford it or are unwelcome. 

“It is now a precedent being set,” Napolitano warned. And long overdue.

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