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Aldermanic privilege steeped in power, politics — and prejudice, critics contend

The Chicago City Council meets Wednesday, July 25, 2018. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Given how many aldermen have decided not to seek re-election, there is a perhaps surprising lack of interest in running for Chicago City Council. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten rule that gives local aldermen final control over zoning and development issues in their own ward, is the ultimate source of power for Chicago’s 50 City Council members.

It’s what makes them the lords of their 55,000-constituent fiefdoms and brings a steady stream of campaign donors to help them get re-elected.

It’s also the means by which aldermen illegally perpetuate the city’s segregated housing patterns, argues a federal civil rights complaint filed Thursday on behalf of nine affordable housing and neighborhood organizations that want to curb the practice.

OPINION

The complaint, filed by lawyers for the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, contends aldermanic prerogative has been used for decades to block affordable housing in the city’s white neighborhoods.

But it was racially-tinged community opposition to a pair of apartment developments proposed in recent years for the Northwest Side that prompted the legal action.

The practice of aldermanic prerogative, also known as aldermanic privilege, gives aldermen veto power over zoning, land use, sale of city land and public financing for projects in their wards.

It’s not set forth by ordinance, or even by City Council rule. But it’s understood that aldermen will defer to each other on matters on their home turf, if only to protect themselves when their time comes.

The complainants argue this results in discriminatory treatment, especially of black and Latino households, because local aldermen routinely back away from supporting affordable housing projects when neighbors object.

The complaint notes 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.

Monica Dillon, a member of Neighbors for Affordable Housing, speaks at a City Hall news conference Thursday to discuss the federal civil rights complaint filed by lawyers for the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Photo by Mark Brown.

Monica Dillon, a member of Neighbors for Affordable Housing, speaks at a City Hall news conference Thursday to discuss the federal civil rights complaint filed by lawyers for the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. Photo by Mark Brown.

“In white wards, aldermanic privilege has become a tool of the new Jim Crow,” said Monica Dillon, a member of Neighbors for Affordable Housing, who got involved with the issue because of a shortage of housing for people with disabilities near her Northwest Side home. Dillon had hoped her disabled daughter could get an apartment in a Jefferson Park development that ran into a buzzsaw of community opposition.

Most aldermen argue in favor of aldermanic privilege on the grounds that it allows them to respond to legitimate community concerns and to represent their constituents’ wishes.

“I should have prerogative in what goes on in my ward. Who knows my ward better than me?” said Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), whose Northwest Side ward has not yet become an affordable housing battleground.

Ald. Nicholas Sposato at a City Council meeting last year. File Photo. Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Ald. Nicholas Sposato at a City Council meeting last year. File Photo. Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) is one of the few who would argue otherwise.

“I think we should end it for affordable housing decisions,” said Pawar, who is stepping down from the City Council and planning to run for city treasurer.

Instead of going that far, though, Pawar instead introduced an ordinance that would require that any proposed affordable housing project at least receive a City Council committee hearing. As it stands, such projects are often quietly—and indefinitely— deferred by aldermen to avoid a public confrontation.

Ald. Ameya Pawar at a Chicago City Council in 2014. File Photo. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Ald. Ameya Pawar at a Chicago City Council in 2014. File Photo. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Those filing the complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a possible precursor to a federal lawsuit say the city could stop the discriminatory effects of aldermanic prerogative by developing a comprehensive plan to locate affordable housing throughout the city and by establishing checks and balances on an individual alderman’s power.

Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy for the Shriver Center, said the city was put on notice nearly 50 years ago “that granting aldermen veto power over the siting of affordable housing violated civil rights laws.”

Instead, the city “has openly and zealously continued to practice this policy of aldermanic prerogative and baked it into every step in the process needed to create affordable housing in predominately white, resource rich communities,” she said.

It’s time to add another topic to the candidate questionnaires for the 2019 election: What will you do to rein in aldermanic prerogative?