Chicago aldermen: from selecting public housing sites to blocking affordable housing

Even as Chicago’s mayor suggests more interest in affordable housing, a new report from the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance shows how Chicago aldermen used “aldermanic prerogative” to slow down, water down, or reject certain kinds of housing projects:

Much of the City Council’s power over development is unwritten and informal.

Typically, if a development in a ward needs a zoning change or permit, and the development is not supported by the alderman of that ward, the proposal is voted down if it ever reaches the full City Council. In some cases, a developer can make a proposal, and the presiding alderman or zoning advisory council will dictate changes — such as how many of the apartments will be condominiums and how many should be set aside for lower-income residents. Those negotiations have to be navigated before the proposal can reach the City Council. The development proposal can also linger in the zoning committee, which is another way it eventually dies from inaction…

The study’s authors examined how zoning laws were used to keep low-income public housing residents confined to certain communities and how private market rate housing has been engineered to confine lower-income residents to specific neighborhoods. They also reviewed case by case what happened with most recent efforts to create affordable housing across Chicago…

The report suggests that in order to ensure affordable housing, the city has to take steps to change the way business is conducted and develop a citywide protocol. That plan would have to force each ward to bear some of the weight of producing affordable housing.

Given Chicago’s long history of residential segregation, I would suggest this is primarily about race: wealthier and whiter neighborhoods do not want black and non-white residents to be able to move in. While the issue may seem to be housing with cheaper values or the preference that neighborhood residents have for local control, at the root, this is about controlling who can live in certain places. If given the opportunity, local officials will claim they are simply representing the interests of their constituents.

And this aldermanic power regarding housing has a long history. Here is part of the tale regarding the early days of public housing in the city retold in Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (p. 21-22):

The city’s aldermen first bullied the state legislature into giving them the power of selecting public housing site, a prerogative that had previously belonged to the local housing authority.

Then a group of leading aldermen, who were not above petty vindictiveness, chartered a bus to tour the city in search of potential sites. On the bus ride, they told reporters that they were out to seek vengeance against the Chicago Housing Authority and the seven aldermen who supported public housing, and they chose sites in neighborhoods represented by these aldermen. Like prankish teenagers, they selected the most outrageous of possibilities, including the tennis courts at the University of Chicago and a parcel of land that sat smack in the middle of a major local highway. The message was clear: the CHA and its liberal backers could build public housing but not in their back yards.

The complexes were not, in the end, built at these sites. Instead, they were constructed on the edges of the city’s black ghettoes.

In many instances, the primary way black and other non-white residents have been able to move into new city neighborhoods or suburbs is when whites are willing to leave.

 

Some Chicago aldermen, businesses argue they want parking meters to move cars and customers along

As Chicago debates a parking meter policy, some aldermen and businesses want metered parking on Sunday so they can keep customers moving through the parking spaces:

Some aldermen are saying “no thanks” to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s offer of free Sunday parking when it comes to their commercial districts for fear it would hurt businesses that rely on street parking for their customers…

“As soon as this deal happened, I got a letter from my chamber of commerce, saying … this is going to hurt local businesses,” Ald. Michele Smith, whose 43rd Ward includes most of Lincoln Park, said during a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday to weigh the mayor’s proposal. Businesses need parkers to move on so others can take their place, several aldermen said…

“In some commercial areas, with some businesses, the businesses actually want the turnover that payment on Sunday gives, because having spots filled by somebody that’s just leaving it there all day hurts business, and that’s the concern that we’re trying to address on a case-by-case basis,” Patton said.

Intriguingly, this puts the aldermen in a tough position between residents/customers and businesses:

But aldermen would have to request it, something Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said could leave council members in a tough spot. “What it ends up setting up is a situation where, ‘Well, whose side are you on — the businesses or the constituents?’ It’s problematic,” Pawar told Patton.

This highlights an advantage of parking meters: they can keep the parked traffic moving so that cars can’t clog up spaces. Without them, city residents and visitors are likely to sit in the spots for a long time. This also is a reminder of the mix of uses often found in urban neighborhoods: both residents and businesses are vying for parking for much of the day. In contrast, parking is more plentiful in suburban shopping areas and many suburban downtown businesses gave up parking meters decades ago to keep customers happy. But, these suburban downtowns rarely have the density and demand for street parking that cities face.

So, if residents in these neighborhoods complained loud enough about wanting free parking on Sundays, would they be able to force an alderman to side with them?

More aldermen voting with Emanuel than did with Daley

Chicago may have a newer mayor but a new study shows voting with the mayor is now even more pronounced for Chicago aldermen:

After analyzing 30 divided roll calls in the nearly two years since Emanuel took office, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers concluded that Emanuel has enjoyed more iron-fisted control over the council than former mayors Richard M. Daley, Richard J. Daley or Ed Kelly, the Democratic machine co-founder.

Twenty-one aldermen supported the mayor’s programs 100 percent of the time, while 18 others were more than 90 percent in lock-step.

There have been no shortage of controversies — ranging from speed cameras, police station and mental health clinic closings to the mayor’s Infrastructure Trust and his plan to nearly double water and sewer fees.

But only seven of the 30 issues drew six or more dissenting votes. Emanuel’s average level of support on all of the divided roll calls was 93 percent, compared to 83 percent during Richard J. Daley’s first two years in office and Kelly’s 88 percent…

Pressed to explain the City Council’s obedience, Simpson pointed to the take-no-prisoners reputation Emanuel built while working under former President Bill Clinton and current President Barack Obama and as chief architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the U.S. House.

Still Chicago, “the city that works“?

One issue with this analysis is that is still leaves Chicago residents with little knowledge of whether these voting patterns are unusual or not. Do other major cities have more contentious voting patterns? Or, is this fairly normal for big cities outside of the occasional wide disagreement? There are always references to more contentious times in the history of the Chicago City Council (see the short-lived Council Wars) but how about even a long view within Chicago for sake of comparison? I imagine this consistent voting together is fairly unusual but once you are around Chicago long enough, this becomes normal.

And regardless of the voting patterns, how about more analysis about whether Mayor Emanuel’s decisions have been good for Chicago in the long-term? Some of this will take time to sort out…