Federal officials are criticizing Chicago for letting aldermen limit affordable housing opportunities through a controversial but long-standing practice known as aldermanic privilege over local development decisions.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is urging Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration to engage in talks for an “informal resolution” to a nearly five-year civil rights investigation, according to a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The HUD investigation suggests that Chicago’s 50 wards, each led by City Council aldermen, wield local veto power over affordable housing developments. The probe alleges that this power has been disproportionately used by majority-white wards to block or downsize affordable housing proposals, contributing to racial segregation patterns in the city.
Aldermanic prerogative — by which other council members defer their votes on development proposals to the aldermen who represent the project’s ward — has been “instrumental in creating Chicago’s patterns of segregation” and disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic households, according to the letter from Lon Meltesen, the regional director of HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Other cities have similar traditions. In New York City, the City Council almost always votes along with the preferences of the local member on land use issues, so opposition on a certain project from that member tends to be an automatic rejection.
The Chicago HUD investigation originated from a complaint filed in 2018 by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and nine other advocacy groups. These groups argued that City Council members had “unfettered power” over zoning and public financing, allowing them to dictate where and how affordable housing is built in their respective wards, the publication reported.
While the investigation has yet to be finalized, Meltesen’s letter expresses concerns about the city’s compliance with federal civil rights law. This is not the first time Chicago has faced serious critiques from HUD; in May, a housing discrimination case prompted former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to sign a binding agreement with HUD meant to address local zoning and development policies that have contributed to environmental racism.
In response to the housing alliance’s allegations, city attorney John Hendricks stated that the complainants failed to establish a violation of fair housing and civil rights laws, but Chicago remains “open to voluntary resolution.” Mayor Johnson’s office has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Apart from aldermanic prerogative, the 2018 complaint also highlights the influence of local resident committees — known as zoning advisory councils — in predominantly white wards, which can effectively limit affordable housing development.
— Quinn Donoghue