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The Color of Power

How Local Control over the Siting of Affordable Housing Shapes America

By Kate Walz & Patricia Fron red and white silhouette of houses

Residential segregation is baked into the American experience. America has a rich history of local, state, and federal laws deliberately separating the races, seeking to advance the belief among whites that they were superior to blacks.1 The 1968 Kerner Commission report found that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” that “threaten the future of every American.”2 In response, the Fair Housing Act was enacted, outlawing housing discrimination in its many forms. Yet little has changed since its passage. Residential segregation stubbornly persists in the United States, leading to vastly different life outcomes for white, black, and Latinx communities.

The current power of a local community to veto proposals to construct affordable housing is a potent reminder of America’s continued commitment to racial segregation.3 Present-day proxies for racial discrimination are often most powerful when aimed at populations with the least political capital, namely, those who are in need of affordable housing and are in many parts of the country disproportionately people of color. Affordable-housing opponents, who are often homeowners, have used their status to reinforce racial boundaries under the guise of preserving property values. Their actions debunk commonly held beliefs that becoming a homeowner somehow automatically triggers a commitment to advance the common good of a community.4

The current power of a local community to veto proposals to construct affordable housing is a potent reminder of America’s continued commitment to racial segregation.

From Los Angeles to Baltimore to Philadelphia, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) power plays out in many forms throughout the country.5 As we describe here, Chicago, however, has developed the master class for other local governments on how hyperlocal control can maintain residential segregation and block affordable housing. In a decadeslong practice that has systemically preserved racial segregation across Chicago communities, local council members, particularly those members representing predominately white neighborhoods, use their power—their “aldermanic prerogative”—to block family affordable housing developments.6 Aldermanic prerogative allows council members to maintain control over their wards by vesting in the aldermen power over virtually all decisions on zoning, planning, city financing, and city-owned lots. This power, though not the result of legislatively granted authority, is overwhelmingly assented to among other council members, the mayor, and city departments.

Local governments such as Chicago that cede to the NIMBY demands of white communities face major consequences. Concentrated decision-making power among those with political capital while low-income black and brown residents have little say in where and how they live creates a vastly unjust society beyond housing. As Dr. Kenneth B. Clark noted, “Racial segregation, like all other forms of cruelty and tyranny, debases all human beings—those who are its victims, those who victimize, and in quite subtle ways those who are merely accessories.”7

City of Chicago: 50 Wards—50 Fiefdoms

The City of Chicago is composed of 50 wards, and the interests of each ward are represented by an elected alderman. In theory the distribution of aldermen among 50 wards is intended to create equal representation among the city’s almost three million residents. However, the policy decisions that shape Chicago’s communities—those that determine who gets to live where and what community amenities residents will have access to—are muddied by hyperlocal power dynamics that pit ward against ward and snuff out cohesive efforts to further the common good.8 Through aldermanic prerogative, Chicago has tacitly established “minifiefdoms” held together by the simple understanding among aldermen and the city’s administration that each alderman has the power to decide what happens within that alderman’s ward.9 These “fiefdoms,” in turn, are plagued by an undercurrent of political influence concentrated among those who have their alderman’s ear—notably those with money, power, and election clout—influence that forces aldermen either to capitulate to the demands of their most powerful constituents or to face ouster. Low-income Chicagoans, by contrast, have little say in the decisions that determine where and how they live.

Aldermanic prerogative necessitates the continuation of the status quo, as aldermen rely on the preservation of neighborhood dynamics and demographics to secure their political longevity. Powerful and predominantly white neighborhood interest groups, in turn, have relied on aldermen to assist in the preservation of neighborhood racial makeup. This is historically rooted in an explicit desire to restrict black access to white neighborhoods.10 During the Great Migration, white communities devised outright barriers to stave off black integration.11 With the enactment of the Federal Fair Housing Act in 1968, many of these direct practices were outlawed.12 However, over the years, racially based housing discrimination has manifested in ever more insidious fashions.

Present-day proxies for racial discrimination are often most powerful when aimed at populations with the least political capital, namely, those in need of affordable housing. Although affordable housing is needed at varying income levels and by all racial and ethnic groups, to many Chicagoans the face of affordable housing is black, and those in need of affordable housing have become racial stereotypes. Affordable housing and the discussions that stem from it—from property values and density to parking and schools—have become dog whistles evoking both explicitly and implicitly biased fears of neighborhood racial change and of black former public housing residents in particular. The consequences harm low- and moderate-income families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, most acutely black and Latinx households, by erecting barriers to affordable rental housing and, to the greatest extent, family affordable housing.

This segregation drives inequities in access to opportunities such as jobs, community services, commercial and other neighborhood amenities, and high-performing schools.

The result is the perpetuation of racial segregation and the concentration of poverty, fueling vast inequities in community investments and access to opportunity for Chicago residents. Although racial segregation is unfortunately common throughout the country, what makes Chicago’s (and generally the Midwest’s) segregation unique is its durational potency and the resulting racial inequities manifested in every facet of life for Chicago’s residents.13 Chicago is, by consequence, an incontrovertibly fragmented city, where public investments and amenities are concentrated in select neighborhoods while others have been devalued and divested, where exclusionary policies ensure that predominantly white and low-poverty areas remain difficult to access for low- and moderate- income households and virtually impossible to access if those households are also black or Latinx, and where low-income individuals of all racial backgrounds have diluted power in shaping the housing decisions that determine where they can live in the city.

In turn, Chicago’s white, black, and Latinx residents live, to a significant degree, in separate neighborhoods and face distinct life outcomes.14 Chicago is now, and has been for more than 50 years, a “highly segregated city,” with whites segregated on the North, Northwest, Southwest, and far South Sides, blacks almost exclusively on the West and South Sides, and Latinx populations in clearly identifiable clusters on the North, Northwest, Southwest, and far South Sides (see fig. 1). Except for the expansion of Latinx households, these color lines have remained virtually unchanged since the 1980 Census.15 Black-white segregation remains the starkest in Chicago, and, among the 10 most segregated large cities, Chicago’s black-white segregation is the most severe, even among the city’s most affluent households.16 This segregation drives inequities in access to opportunities such as jobs, community services, commercial and other neighborhood amenities, and high-performing schools.17

City of Chicago Wards and 2012-2016 Demographics
Figure 1. City of Chicago wards and 2012-2016 demographics.

Chicago’s enduring residential racial and economic segregation has produced harmful collateral consequences for all.18 However, Chicago’s political machine ignores what is good for all to advance what is good for the few. When making the decisions at the core of shaping Chicago neighborhoods, aldermanic prerogative forces aldermen to navigate a clamor of interests (from developers to advocates and NIMBYs)—the tone and tenor of which is unique to each ward—compelling many aldermen to do not what is best for the city or even their ward but what will least damage their reputation with powerful groups and their chances of reelection. The result is a culture where aldermen in predominantly white and low-poverty areas erect barriers to family affordable housing to preserve the status quo; aldermen in wards that have faced chronic disinvestment are obliged to take more than an equitable share of affordable housing because, if it is not built in their wards, it will not be built at all, and there exists a demonstrated need among their constituents; and aldermen in gentrifying areas have diminished power to stave off the market forces creating an increasingly unaffordable housing landscape.

No Place Here

Predominately white communities, fearing neighborhood racial change, often engage in aggressive NIMBY tactics to block family affordable housing deals. These tactics include publicly framing objections as concerns over school overcrowding, lowering property values, and community safety. In the face of this pressure, aldermen—whether they personally agree with the community’s view or not—capitulate to these demands and prevent affordable housing projects from moving forward.

Yet local governments that advance the racial animus of private citizens in their decision making do so at their peril. In examining whether the actions of a governmental body were illegally motivated by racial animus, statements made by private citizens and decision makers during the sequence of events leading up to the denial of housing are highly relevant.19 References to community changes as a result of the inclusion of affordable housing, such as fear that a community will become “a ghetto,” that the residential character or shared values of the community will change, or that there will be an increase in blight or crime or a decrease in property values have all been found to be camouflaged racial expressions.20 A local government does not avoid liability by claiming that it was simply acquiescing to a desire of its constituents.21 Indeed, a decision made in the context of strong, discriminatory opposition becomes tainted with discriminatory intent even if the decision makers personally had no strong views on the matter.22

Local governments that advance the racial animus of private citizens in their decision making do so at their peril.

Many cities receive federal housing and community development funds, a significant portion of which is to support the affordable housing needs of low- to moderate-income households. As a condition of receiving these funds, cities certify annually to compliance with federal civil rights laws, including the duty of affirmatively furthering fair housing. This obligation requires cities to take meaningful actions, beyond simply combating discrimination, to tackle disparities in housing needs and access to opportunity, and to create “integrated and balanced living patterns.”23

For new construction projects using HOME funds, additional analysis of each project according to the “site and neighborhood standards” is required to ensure that each project will not further segregation.24 Under this analysis, the participating jurisdiction is prohibited from placing a project in an area of minority or poverty concentration unless “sufficient, comparable opportunities exist” for low-income families of color to live outside areas of minority concentration or else one of several conditions of overriding need are met.25 The conditions for placing housing in areas of minority and poverty concentration may not be repeatedly used “if the use of this standard in recent years has had the effect of circumventing the obligation to provide housing choice.”26 The analysis requires the participating jurisdiction to identify the racial and ethnic makeup of the area, justify the placement of the project, and consider the marginal effect of the project’s placement on the opportunities offered by the participating jurisdiction’s housing inventory.

Aldermanic prerogative is, however, one of the key vehicles for the infiltration of racial animus into Chicago’s decision making over where new rental housing is built. As a result, most affordable housing developers, at least those savvy about Chicago politics, will not bother to propose developments in wards where aldermen or powerful local stakeholders are known to oppose affordable housing. Because aldermen have certain tools at their disposal to block developments completely or influence the number and type of affordable units, developers focus their efforts on a few wards friendly to affordable housing.27 However, this power is not equalized. Despite overwhelming deference to aldermanic prerogative, in instances in which aldermanic prerogative is deployed to advance affordable housing, it is often ignored and at times actively blocked by the city council.

Unfettered Zoning Power

The cornerstone of aldermanic prerogative is the power to control zoning, as this allows or limits density. Limiting or reducing density on a single site has the effect of eliminating the financial feasibility of a particular affordable housing proposal on that site. Limiting or reducing density over a larger area artificially limits the supply of dwelling units, inflating both housing and land costs in a neighborhood and eliminating the financial feasibility of affordable housing on a broader basis. Chicago has delegated this vast power to aldermen and places virtually no check on its use. Aldermen, either on their own or through a ward committee process, ultimately decide the fate of residential and commercial development by pulling multiple levers to control zoning. The use of these levers has traditionally served to keep affordable housing out of predominantly white wards or those with predominantly white pockets and heavily concentrate it in predominantly black or Latinx areas.28 Similar power dynamics may be at play in cities beyond Chicago.

Zoning Advisory Committees and the Development Proposal Process

One of the most powerful tools to influence zoning and development is the use of constituent committees to decide or advise on most residential zoning matters in the ward. These committees are intended to inform and consult with their respective aldermen on community processes ranging from rezoning to sanitation. Ten wards, a majority of which (eight) are on the predominately white North or Northwest Side, have established formal “zoning advisory committees,” and aldermen within these wards rely on the committee as the primary informer on residential and commercial development. Zoning advisory committees are often used to preserve the demographic makeup of a single ward or as a means of preserving predominantly white populations within wards. The committees use this power not only to block zoning change requests but also to upend the overall character and nature of a proposed affordable housing development. For example, zoning advisory committees, as a precondition of receiving their approval, will often require a developer to reduce the number of affordable housing units in a project or reduce the size of units so that they are not available to families with children.

Additional hurdles to the development of affordable housing, most notably in white neighborhoods, are the ward-level development proposal processes. Often crafted by the zoning advisory committees and aldermanic offices, these processes set forth a maze of varied ward-by-ward requirements and subsequent cost-burdens placed on residential and commercial developers. Requirements can include alerting all residents within 1,000 feet of the proposed site at the developer’s expense, respecting architectural heritage, or holding public hearings in conjunction with the respective neighborhood associations. These requirements often have the effect of deterring developers from attempting to develop affordable housing in certain wards entirely. In other cases, developers may spend significant time and money on completing one or more of these tasks, only to have their proposal rejected at the whim of an alderman or zoning advisory committee.

In neighborhoods characterized by predominantly white populations, these community meetings become sounding boards for NIMBYism and fear-mongering.

A common element of the development processes is the formal or informal requirement to hold a community meeting before the developer receives aldermanic support. Community meetings, though intended to inform and elicit transparent feedback, are often hijacked by a vocal minority fearful of neighborhood change and invite early and discriminatory opposition to a project. In neighborhoods characterized by predominantly white populations, these community meetings become sounding boards for NIMBYism and fear-mongering. In many instances, such fear-based opposition is also expressed in virtual spaces, such as Nextdoor or Facebook, where aldermen are known to participate.29

Equivalent ward-level discretion over development does not exist to the same extent in the city’s predominately black and Latinx neighborhoods. While 62 percent of majority-white wards have a zoning advisory committee, only 31 percent of majority black and Latinx wards have such a committee. Predominantly black or Latinx wards with a zoning advisory committee, whether informal or formal, have on average 320 percent more affordable units in the ward than their majority-white counterparts.

Downzoning and Landmarking

By reducing density through “downzoning,” aldermen increase the power they have to block affordable housing development by preemptively reducing the likelihood of higher-density proposals and ensuring proposals that do come through will trigger ward-specific approval processes, such as zoning advisory committee approval.

If allowable density is reduced, housing supply is constricted, raising not only housing cost—particularly rents—but land value as well, much to the detriment of affordable housing development. Downzoning also eliminates the potential incentive to redevelop existing properties by reducing or eliminating “zoning headroom” or the difference between the amount of development (floor area/number of dwelling units) that exists on a particular property and what is allowed by the zoning district in which it is located. If zoning headroom is reduced, properties that may have been targets for redevelopment, with a potential for an affordable housing component, are in effect eliminated.

Aldermen have used their land-use powers to downzone large swathes of land, often under pressure from local community groups opposed to developments. In areas where development pressure exists, areas suitable for multifamily development are frequently downzoned to reduce the allowable floor area and number of dwelling units permitted in an attempt to prevent or limit new construction. Again, this power is not equalized. Downzoning to advance future affordable housing opportunities is not always offered the same support from the city as downzoning with the intention to block it.30

Additional restrictions on the development potential in an area can be enacted through the application of “landmark districts.” Although originated to preserve historic structures, the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, for example, has been used to promote racial and economic segregation. Historically aldermen have expressed concern that landmarking has not had the intended results and has become another form of downzoning, used by neighborhood associations to control development.31

Once a landmark designation has been made, developing affordable units becomes virtually impossible. Any alteration or modification of designated landmarks or properties in landmark districts must be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks through a process that can require permit fees, public hearings, and appeals to the city council.32 Designated landmarks are subject to additional building code restrictions and limitations not imposed on nonlandmark buildings or districts.33 Landmarking can substantially limit the availability of affordable housing by inhibiting the modification or development of residential properties.

Access to City Funds

Typically affordable housing projects in Chicago use a mosaic of funding sources approved by the city council. Low-income housing tax credits available from both the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago are the primary source of financing, with other city programs such as the Multifamily Loan Program offering gap financing. Allocation and distribution of these funds require “evidence of community support” and, in the case of the Multifamily Loan Program, a letter of aldermanic support.

At a very basic level, aldermen control the funding mechanisms for affordable housing and have the power to refuse funding for developments of which they do not approve. This holds true for all forms of financial support, including tax increment financing and city-owned lots. After multiple Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with developers, we found no evidence of a project receiving funds without a letter of aldermanic support. The letter of support is, in actuality, the most important and very first thing attended to by a developer.

At a very basic level, aldermen control the funding mechanisms for affordable housing and have the power to refuse funding for developments of which they do not approve. 

The Chicago Department of Housing’s internal procedures note that development projects in need of city funds over $150,000 will not be reviewed by the administration’s internal loan committee—a necessary step in the approval process—unless and until it has documented aldermanic support. Once the internal loan committee approves the project, an “intergovernmental affairs memo” packet is prepared for city council review. Internal procedures dictate that this packet must include a signed aldermanic support letter—the first item listed in the mandatory checklist.34 Chicago’s Multifamily Financing Program Guide also directs project managers, when conducting feasibility reviews, to assess the level of aldermanic and community support. Chicago’s Qualified Allocation Plan aligns with these internal procedures by requiring development applications to include “evidence of community input and support for the project.”35 Not only do these requirements hinder development, but also they are inconsistent with fair housing requirements and recent guidance by the Internal Revenue Service, which clarified that the Internal Revenue Code “neither requires nor encourages housing credit agencies to honor local vetoes.”36

Multifamily Loan Program projects are continually sited outside predominantly white and low-poverty areas. Because of aldermanic-support requirements and burdensome application processes and costs, this concentration is unlikely to change. For example, in addition to preapplication materials, the first stage of the two-stage application process has 30 items, including a “Plan for Community Input” and a “letter of support from the Alderman.”37 Each portion of the application has a significant cost, which must be borne by the developer. High cost uncertainty over the approval of the development and high likelihood of rejection in predominantly white and low-poverty areas drive developers to restrict their operations to safer bets—areas where affordable housing has previously been approved.

Despite using the same application and process for securing subsidies, senior housing does not show the same absolute concentration by wards. For example, despite seniors (those over 65) making up only 10 percent of Chicago’s population, senior housing made up 39 percent of all affordable new construction and preservation from 2009 to 2013. Senior housing is also the only type of affordable housing constructed in predominantly white areas.38 The same majority-white wards that account for 2 percent of new construction multifamily housing account for 15 percent of all senior housing. The relative distribution of senior projects suggests that a more equitable spatial placement of family affordable housing units is indeed possible were it not for community opposition and its influence on aldermanic prerogative.

Control of City-Owned Lots

The City of Chicago controls a large inventory of parcels throughout the city and, through various programs, makes them available to developers, community organizations, and the public at large. This land inventory offers opportunities to build affordable housing by reducing a major cost barrier to development, especially in highly desirable areas. In fact, any sale of city-owned land for residential development triggers the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance mandating 10 percent of the units be affordable.39

Indeed, city-owned land is often used in affordable development projects as a part of the local matching contribution required for the use of federal funds such as the HOME program. Projects that do use city-owned land for housing developments are universally located in the South and West Sides of the city. No city-owned parcel of land has been used to build a single affordable dwelling unit in the majority white, low-poverty wards on the North Side of the city, even though the city controls over 56 acres of land in these areas. Land disposition under the Negotiated Sales Program is subject to a letter of aldermanic support and redevelopment agreement with the city, but certain parcels may be earmarked by aldermen for “potential city projects,” in effect removing them from the developable land inventory. Aldermen opposed to the construction of affordable housing in their wards may withhold city-owned land for “other purposes” or simply refuse to approve sale of land resources for housing projects.

Use of Parliamentary and Extraparliamentary Power

In situations where zoning relief is required for an affordable housing development, aldermen often use parliamentary and extraparliamentary maneuvers to delay or, in essence, to stop affordable housing projects in the approval process. City council members, especially when the power is being used to block affordable housing, defer to aldermanic ward decisions and even foster efforts to carry out those wishes.

All zoning amendments and planned developments are required to be reviewed by the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards before going to the full city council. The committee chairperson has the power to defer matters upon the request of an alderman and may defer a matter “indefinitely,” which means a six-month deferral that has the effect of killing the project “in committee.” The parliamentary maneuver of deferring or indefinitely deferring the matter effectively denies the application, regardless of whether the full city council has a vote on it.

Prerogative at Play

The following examples from Chicago illustrate what aldermanic prerogative looks like in reality.

The Oliphant Development

The proposed Oliphant development in Chicago serves as an example of aldermanic zoning power through a zoning advisory committee. Edison Park is a predominately white (89 percent white, 7 percent Latinx, and 1 percent black with a total population of 11,150), single-family-home community on the North Side represented by Ald. Anthony Napolitano. Home to many employees of the City of Chicago, Edison Park enjoys quality schools and a touted “small town” feel. In 2016 developer Troy Realty proposed to construct a 44-unit ornate Italian Renaissance–styled residential and commercial development at 6655 North Oliphant in Edison Park. Troy Realty sought a zoning change from the city. Per city protocol and practice, the developer was to secure that zoning change from Alderman Napolitano. In turn, Alderman Napolitano referred the request to his zoning advisory committee and vowed to uphold whatever decision the committee made.40

On May 26, 2016, Alderman Napolitano sent to constituents an email announcing a zoning advisory committee meeting to discuss the Oliphant project; the email expressly identified the proposal as creating rental units. As a condition of compliance with the 2007 Affordable Requirements Ordinance triggered by the zoning change, the developer was to set aside four units as affordable and rent them at no more than 60 percent of the area median rent.41

'If the community does not want it, I do not want it…. I would never do that to you.'

On June 1, 2016, the zoning advisory committee met to discuss the project at a local park facility. The developer opted out of attending this meeting as it had become apparent that the presence of groups opposed to the development would dominate the meeting. As a result of the backlash, Alderman Napolitano urged the developer to consider building condominiums rather than rental housing “in an attempt to win the community’s support.”42 When more than 500 people showed up to object to the proposal, the zoning advisory committee had to move the meeting to the field house’s gym. Alderman Napolitano accused his political opponents of further inciting opposition to the development by claiming the project would create 127 residential units that would be rented to Housing Choice “Section 8” voucher holders.

In response to this opposition, the developer agreed to reduce the number of units from 44 to 30 and build condominium rather than rental units. Under the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, the developer would still be required to sell three condominium units at 60 percent of the market price. Instead the developer agreed to sell one condominium unit at 60 percent of its market price and contribute a $250,000 in-lieu-of fee to the city’s affordable housing fund. Nevertheless, community opposition continued to grow, with residents claiming the proposed project would burden overcrowded schools and create traffic and parking challenges, even though more than 150 parking spaces would be available and the bulk of the 30 units would be one- and two-bedroom apartments.43

In two of the later public zoning advisory committee meetings on the development, the power of ward residents to move their alderman became abundantly clear. At the October 6, 2016, meeting, Alderman Napolitano promised ward residents that he would not allow the project to be built over their objections: “If the community does not want it, I do not want it…. I would never do that to you.”44 At the subsequent zoning advisory committee meeting on November 10, 2016, a majority of the 65 attendees came to voice their opposition to the project. One resident said that she was “paying massive taxes to live here, so I want people who are living the same way as me.”45 In January 2017 the zoning advisory committee voted against the mixed-use development’s zoning change request. One of the stated reasons for opposing the development was the concern over “newcomers” into the tight-knit neighborhood.46 Alderman Napolitano accepted the zoning advisory committee’s decision, effectively killing the proposal.47 In defending the process, Alderman Napolitano said, “People are paying a lot to live in this neighborhood exactly as it is, and they don’t necessarily want to see it filled with multi-unit rental buildings…. People cherish where they live, and they want to safeguard it.… They have every right to do that, and I’ll protect their right to do that, as long as I’m representing them.”48

The Central Project

Portage Park is one of four neighborhoods partially located within the 36th Ward on the far Northwest Side of Chicago. While the 36th Ward is 67 percent Latinx, 26 percent white, 4 percent black, and 3 percent Asian, Portage Park is the only plurality white neighborhood within the ward with 49 percent white, 43 percent Latinx, and 1 percent black with a total population of 64,523.49 Considered part of the bungalow belt, the ward is represented by Ald. Gilbert Villegas.

In January 2016 Full Circle Communities proposed the development of a $17 million, 55-unit affordable housing complex, called the Central, for veterans in Portage Park.50 The lot for the proposed development had sat vacant for more than 10 years.

As part of the development process requirements for the ward, Alderman Villegas requested that the Full Circle developers hold a community meeting prior to Full Circle receiving city permits or applying for state low-income housing tax credits. Prior to the meeting, Portage Park community members voiced opposition to the development on EveryBlock, citing concerns related to increased crime, declining property values, density, increased traffic, and parking shortages.51 Other comments made derogatory and discriminatory statements about the development’s potential residents: “I have over 15 years of law enforcement experience and working in low income areas and high income areas. I [h]ave worked in high income areas in Lincoln [P]ark which have low income housing apartments, [M]arshal[l] [F]ield [G]ardens and Cabrini [G]reen, but are [ ] responsible for 90 percent of robberies, shootings and drug transactions which occur daily.”52

More than 500 residents showed up at the January 26, 2016, community meeting.53 A second meeting had to be scheduled to accommodate the residents who were denied access due to overcrowding concerns.54 Many in attendance expressed concerns that the project would attract crime to the area: “They’ll come in and treat this place like crap.”55 Other residents, noting that children may engage in criminal activity, wanted to limit the prospective tenants to seniors and veterans. Ald. Nicholas Sposato, whose 38th Ward borders the 36th Ward, also attended the meeting. Alderman Sposato said that some of the crime concerns were overstated: “I’m sick and tired of people saying it’s a crime-ridden neighborhood…. You do not live in an unsafe community.”56

The meeting ended with Alderman Villegas pulling the plug on the project: “I’ve heard nothing but you don’t want this…. I don’t think we’re going to move forward with this.”57 Just a few hours after the community meeting, Alderman Villegas officially announced that he would not be supporting the proposal. He indicated that the overwhelming negative response from community members drove his decision: “The response from the community tonight was overwhelming. I have decided not to support the proposed development at 3655 W. Central Ave.”58

In June 2017 Alderman Villegas announced that an assisted living facility would be looking at the site. At a community meeting where the proposal was met with praise, the developer, acknowledging the community’s prior opposition, promised that he would not build any affordable housing: “I wouldn’t insult the neighborhood by even thinking like that.”59

Planning Against Prerogative: Toward a Less Segregated Society

For Chicago and many cities like it, racial and ethnic inequities remain “pervasive, persistent, and consequential” due to failures to address widespread private, public, and entrenched institutional discrimination.60 This institutional discrimination leads to what social scientists refer to as the “poverty trap,” perpetuated indefinitely when local government is blind to, or willfully ignorant of, its critical role in designing and enacting interventions against structural disadvantage.61 This has led in Chicago to a precipitous drop in population—8,638 residents lost from 2015 to 2016—and these exiting residents are disproportionately black and disproportionately low- and moderate-income.62 Census data show that from 2000 to 2010 alone, Chicago lost 181,000 black residents.63 Moreover, economic trends further paint the picture of a city in flux—with low- and moderate-income residents moving out and higher-income households moving in.

When individuals are left to languish in a trap of poverty, when entire communities are devalued, and when housing is not available at a range of affordability levels and for a range of household types, reactionary outmigration is the natural consequence. Until the city has an objective and centralized system for approving affordable housing and creates a comprehensive plan for community investment that is grounded in achieving racial equity, the city will remain segregated and will risk extinguishing its vibrancy, its very core and constitution.

Adopt a Citywide Comprehensive Plan

Chicago and other cities often lack a citywide comprehensive plan. The City of Chicago implements land-use policies without a comprehensive plan for development. A never-adopted draft 1964 comprehensive plan came closest to the type of planning that is needed. It emphasized the core theme of ensuring that Chicago is a “city for all people,” meaning that “[t]he city must insure a wide range of housing in different kinds of neighborhoods and at different densities. It must insure that there is the broadest possible choice of housing costs and type to meet the needs of different families of different incomes.”64 It touches on the need to foster “harmonious, stabilized neighborhoods attractive to families of all races” to bring about a better racial balance.65

Today what the city does plan is fragmented and segmented by issue area and continues to skirt issues of segregation and NIMBYism, prioritizing instead neighborhood preservation. For the last 20 years, the City of Chicago has adopted a five-year housing plan that does not take on residential segregation or racial equity. Likewise the city creates plans targeting other issues such as homelessness, health, transportation, and economic development. These issue-specific plans fail to connect housing and community development issues and inadequately assess the landscape of racial and economic segregation, the mechanisms that fuel present-day segregation, and the social ills that stem from it.

Chicago and other cities must therefore streamline housing and community development planning by producing a central comprehensive plan that assesses citywide community development and affordable housing needs and barriers, identifies where affordable housing and other types of investments—such as infrastructure improvements—are lacking, and creates measurable goals and benchmarks for meeting community development and affordable housing need. This plan should include analysis of past and existing subsidized affordable housing units that can be updated quarterly with tabulation indicating neighborhood distribution. The plan should include benchmarks for the equitable distribution of future subsidized affordable housing units including distributing subsidies geographically. This plan must take on issues of segregation and inequities in community investment and serve as a guide for decision making and funding.

Implement a Racial Equity Impact Assessment

Chicago and all state and local governments should also implement a racial equity impact assessment as a central component of citywide planning and housing decision making.

In acknowledgment that racial inequities are borne out of systematic, institutionalized racism perpetuated through public policy, racial equity impact assessments allow a systematic examination of the racial impact of proposed decisions before any harm can be done. Such assessments are used proactively to identify unintended consequences and influence proposed decisions to mitigate adverse outcomes. Otherwise, when racial equity is not consciously considered, “racial inequality is often unconsciously replicated.”66 Several cities have taken steps to implement racial equity impact assessments in various fashions in the public policy sphere.67

Centralize Zoning

A centralization of zoning will further advance racial equity and reduce the obstruction of hyperlocal control and NIMBYism. In Illinois, decisions over municipal zoning are considered a police power of local legislative bodies, and this means that the power over zoning cannot be completely removed from the Chicago City Council. However, the city’s policy and practice of delegating zoning decisions to individual aldermen and, in turn, many aldermen delegating that power to zoning advisory committees, is an unauthorized exercise of that zoning power.

At a minimum, zoning ordinances must prohibit hyperlocal control over zoning. The zoning ordinance must also be amended to be consistent with a comprehensive plan grounded in advancing racial equity, meaning that each zoning decision is evaluated to determine if it advances the commitment to racial equity. Zoning ordinances must remove all references to “preserving the character of existing neighborhoods,” serving to maintain residential segregation in predominately white, single-family-home communities.

A zoning administrator must be tasked with bringing a greater level of fairness and racial equity to zoning and land-use review. In cities that have adopted this model, political influence has been reduced; zoning corruption has been curtailed; and individual zoning and land-use decisions have been better aligned with local planning documents.68

Embrace Transparency and Accountability

To bring greater transparency and accountability to the housing development review process, cities should establish uniform proposal and approval processes, with mandated timelines, for affordable housing development applications that are not infringed by hyperlocal rules. The application process should place a favorable emphasis on projects that further the goals of the comprehensive plan, bring about more balanced affordable housing, and enhance racial equity. Cities also should have an open and uniform policy for the transfer, sale, and donation of city-owned lots.

Eliminate Pocket Vetoes and Letters of Support

Any pocket veto or letter of support requirement for affordable housing development must be eliminated. Instead developers should be required to certify that their proposed request for financing is consistent with comprehensive planning. Objections to a project should be limited to objective criteria such as that the proposed project will perpetuate segregation or be in a flood plain. In this manner, local officials would be required to make public the reasons for their opposition, and those reasons must be clearly related to rational interests in the “sticks and bricks” of the project and not the demographics of the residents of the proposed project. Opposition must also be consistent with treatment of other types of housing plans.

Adopt Anti-NIMBY Laws

The adoption of anti-NIMBY laws could bar opponents from blocking or stalling affordable housing developments, as long as those developments align with the comprehensive plan and meet other specifications. Local politicians would retain the power to impose certain requirements on developers and influence the overall developments, but if the ward needs affordable housing, local politicians would not be able to block or delay the deal.

Require Fair Housing and Racial Equity Training

City employees involved in housing and community development programs should undergo mandatory annual training on affirmatively furthering fair housing and racial equity.


Local governments such as Chicago have neglected to fulfill their civil rights obligations by failing to ensure more equitable, affordable housing opportunities for families and to balance the power dynamics involved in community planning. Ultimately this power rests with the federal government, which can force state and local governments receiving federal housing dollars to take active steps to dismantle policies and practices perpetuating residential segregation. The recent announcement by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Ben Carson, of a rollback of HUD’s power to advance balanced living patterns and civil rights and instead give local governments more control is essentially a blank check to those who want to maintain residential segregation and violate civil rights laws.69 As a nation, we must commit ourselves to justice and equity and finally create change that affords everyone, whoever they are, the opportunity to live wherever they choose.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance & Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, A City Fragmented: How Race, Power, and Aldermanic Prerogative Shape Chicago’s Neighborhoods [2018].

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