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Mayor Brandon Johnson presents the 2024 Executive Budget Recommendations during a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023.

Chicago City Council members have been accused of ‘unfettered power over zoning, land use, city lots and public financing in order to decide where, if and how affordable housing is built in their wards.’

Ashlee Rezin

Chicago wrongly limited affordable housing with aldermanic prerogative, HUD says

The city of Chicago wrongly limited affordable housing by allowing City Council members to reject developments in their wards through the use of their aldermanic prerogative, federal investigators say.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is being asked to enter talks for an “informal resolution” of an almost five-year civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The department’s investigation indicates that the city affords each of its 50 wards a local veto over proposals to build affordable housing and that many majority-white wards use the local veto to block, deter or downsize such proposals,” wrote Lon Meltesen, regional director of HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-white wards that have the least affordable housing.”

Meltesen called the Council members’ local veto “instrumental in creating Chicago’s patterns of segregation.” He said that veto “disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic households who are far more likely than white households to need and qualify for affordable housing.”

The investigation began after a complaint was filed to HUD by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and nine other advocacy groups in November 2018 that said Chicago Council members have “unfettered power over zoning, land use, city lots and public financing in order to decide where, if and how affordable housing is built in their wards.”

That power, often referred to as aldermanic prerogative, is discriminatory and violates the civil rights of those seeking housing, the groups said.

While HUD officials say the investigation has not been finalized, Meltesen said in his letter to Mary Richardson-Lowry, Johnson’s top City Hall lawyer, that “the city’s use of the local veto despite understanding its effects raises serious concerns about the city’s compliance” with federal civil rights law.

The complaint tracks the origins of the aldermanic veto to the 1930s and notes strong pushback back then from Council members who represented white neighborhoods. Their constituents saw racially integrated public housing as “the end of their neighborhoods,” the complaint said.

“The city acknowledges this effect of the practice, its historical use for the purpose of creating and maintaining patterns of racial segregation and its continued use as a tool that effectuates racially motivated opposition to affordable housing,” Meltesen said.

In an interview, Patricia Fron, Chicago Fair Housing Alliance co-executive director, called aldermanic prerogative, a “tool to covertly reinforce segregation when legal forms were outlawed.”

The letter to the city, she said, “gives weight to the findings we laid out in the complaint.”

HUD previously has called out city practices as discriminatory. In May, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a binding agreement with HUD over another housing discrimination case that was filed over the planned move of the General Iron scrap-metal operation to the Southeast Side.

In response to the recent concern from HUD, city lawyer John Hendricks said in a letter earlier this month that the complainants “fail to establish a violation of fair housing and civil rights laws” but that the city is “open to voluntary resolution.”

HUD officials declined to comment on the letter, saying that “the case is still open and HUD has not issued any final determinations at this time.”

A spokesman for Johnson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the power of alderpersons, the 2018 complaint also calls out the use of local resident committees known as zoning advisory councils that can limit housing.

The complaint said these groups are “one of the most powerful tools used to influence affordable housing development,” especially in predominantly white wards. In other white areas, similar groups have been used to effectively keep out low-income housing, the complaint said.

Residents groups on the North Side and Northwest Side, in particular, have “tremendous power to influence aldermen and make final decisions over affordable housing, effectively shutting down proposals before the city’s Department of Planning and Development even considers a proposal,” the complaint said.

In Edison Park, a proposal in 2017 for rental property that included four units of affordable housing drew more than 500 people to oppose it, the complaint said.

That proposal was defeated.

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