Aldermanic Prerogative: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

Understanding affordable housing in Chicago (and the claims that politicians, developers, and community groups make about affordable housing) is no mean feat. What makes a “good” affordable housing policy, let alone a “progressive,” or “community led” housing policy in Chicago?


One place where this gets particularly complicated is aldermanic prerogative, a practice that Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot vowed to end and many groups have defended over the last few weeks.

What is aldermanic prerogative?

Aldermanic prerogative is City Council members’ power over zoning and development in their wards.

Aldermanic prerogative encompasses many different pieces of political power: in the realm of real estate, it refers to City Council members’ power over zoning and development in their wards.It’s the idea that Aldermen are the final authority in their wards when it comes to development, zoning, and building. It also relates to the many ways that, as Alderman Scott Waguespack described, aldermen can play a powerful role in who gets parking permits, driveway permits demolition holds, alley access, signage, and more.

While Ben Joravsky wrote up a list of times when aldermanic prerogative was NOT a mandate during Rahm’s term (most notably in the case of The 78, where alderman-elect Sigcho-Lopez’s concerns about the development were ignored), it’s true that aldermen have a great deal of jurisdiction over how developers build in their neighborhoods. Across the city, ward to ward, policy, process, and parameters around development varies greatly.

Raising Citywide Standards for Affordable Housing:

The real issue at the heart of affordable housing conversations across the city is that city-wide standards for building affordable housing are relatively toothless. The current affordable housing mandate for developers is the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), which requires only 10% of units in a new developments to be priced at 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). 60% of the AMI is, in essence, a studio priced at $890 a month.

This citywide rule doesn’t provide enough affordable housing for Chicago residents.

It also doesn’t offset the increases to local rents & property taxes caused by 90% luxury developments.

The Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) is lacking for a number of reasons: it doesn’t require developers to provide enough units of affordable housing per development to adequately address displacement, the standards for what constitutes affordable housing are un-affordable for many Chicagoans. If aldermanic prerogative was outlawed today, this inadequate standard would be all that holds developers accountable to building affordable housing.

This is part of why ONE Northside (as a part of the Chicago Housing Initiative) is fighting for the Development for All Ordinance, which would strengthen the Affordable Requirements Ordinance in all of the ways that matter.

But it may take a long time for the Development for All ordinance to be passed and implemented — and while that happens, wards where gentrification is happening quickly are missing major opportunities to stop displacement.

Where It Works:

Community power is a major part of fighting gentrification. When communities have real power over developments in their neighborhoods, developers have to provide real benefits to the community in order to build. With the right aldermen (like the 6 newly elected aldermen in City Council) in power, aldermanic prerogative can be a way to bring community voice and much more stringent requirements for developers than could be passed across the city to particular wards with dire need of affordable housing.

In the 40th Ward, newly elected Alderman Andre Vasquez supports requiring requirements that mandate new developments include up to 30% affordable housing onsite, far more than the current standards of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO). We expect other newly elected progressive aldermen in wards with need of affordable housing to support similar measures for their own wards.

In the 35rd Ward, Alderman Carlos Ramirez Rosa’s community zoning process, currently guiding the redevelopment of a parking lot on Emmett Street, is possible primarily because of aldermanic prerogative — if this practice were banned, there would be little incentive for developers to work with aldermen or the communities they represent, as long they follow the inadequate standards of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance.

Without aldermanic prerogative, developers could easily bypass these ward level mandates, meaning wards where gentrification is already occurring would lose opportunities to create more affordable housing and hold developers to higher, community driven standards.

Where It Doesn’t Work:

Of course, not every ward has an alderman committed to making affordable housing a priority: in these cases, the customs of aldermanic prerogative can be incredibly damaging, deepening segregation. As Kate Walz from the Sergeant Shriver National Center on Poverty Law says, “The power given to aldermen to block affordable housing, either on their own or as a result of the demands of their constituents, results in serious civil rights issues for the city.”

In 2017 Jefferson Park residents against a affordable housing development proposed in their ward mobilized 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano, who had worked against the development for years to shut down this development in the citywide zoning committee.

In the 14th Ward, Ald. Ed Burke’s alleged shakedown of a Burger King in his ward is one of the more infamous examples of aldermanic prerogative. Burke stopped a driveway permit for the building in order to extort the building owners and get new clients for his law firm. Burke’s gambit is often cited as an example of aldermanic prerogative, facilitated by the great discretion aldermen have over development in their wards.

What does it mean to ‘ban’ aldermanic prerogative?

Lightfoot is still ironing out the specifics of what to do to curtail aldermanic prerogative. An outright ban on aldermanic say in development happening in their wards would not only be difficult to enforce, but would also entrench segregation and contribute to the loss of affordable housing.

However, there are ways to keep the good of aldermanic prerogative (more opportunities to make developers pay their fair share when building in gentrifying neighborhoods) while eliminating the bad (aldermen indebted to developers running wild with ward zoning).

What will Lightfoot do?

Regardless of next steps on aldermanic prerogative, citywide standards for affordable housing have to be strengthened in order to create more affordable housing and end the displacement of black and brown communities from Chicago.

ONE Northside is committed to building affordable housing policy that upholds community power through aldermanic prerogative while stopping the corruption, deepening segregation, and developer mandates it can create.

Want to be a part of building stronger standards for affordable housing across the city?

Become a member of ONE Northside. Learn more here.

This explainer is a new project from ONE Northside: based on conversations with community members and issue experts (who are, often as not, the same people), the hope is that the more we all know about city and state policy, the easier it is for everyday people to make change.

Contributors: Chrissy Breit, Noah Moskowitz, ONE Northside’s affordable housing team.