Earlier this week, the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law released their ninety-two page report entitled: A City Fragmented: How Race, Power, and Aldermanic Prerogative Shape Chicago’s Neighborhoods. The full report is here. The report describes in carefully documented detail the deliberate process by which segregation is enforced in the City of Chicago today.
The “Open Secret” of Segregationist Practices: Aldermen exercise hyperlocal control over the development of their communities. Because they control zoning, they have a direct say in what housing is constructed and in what density (number of families, number of units, single-/multi-family, etc.). They also directly control access to city funds and all the city-owned lots in their wards. Although the city has affordable housing ordinances, aldermen use well-known procedures to routinely evade them. Further, they can decide what measures are introduced or voted on by the city council either through official or unofficial channels, so many proposals for affordable housing are killed before they are even brought before the council. All these privileges are not conferred upon them by virtue of legislation but rather exist by agreement among the aldermen, the mayor, and the Department of Planning and Development. It is through these methods that the aldermen shape the racial and economic composition of the communities they serve.
Poverty and Race: Although it is true that people of all races and ethnicities need affordable housing, the study found that in Chicago in 2017:
“93% of families with children at or below the poverty line are families of color. Black and Latinx families are disproportionately affected: 37% of black and 23% of Latinx families with children were at or below poverty line, compared with just 7% of white families with children […]. Families of color below the poverty line are most likely to have worst case housing needs, including facing severe rent burdens and severely inadequate housing.”
Stereotypes and Fears of Racial Integration: White neighborhood interest groups rely on alderman to preserve the racial composition of the neighborhood. Although many outright barriers were made illegal by the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act, the use of aldermanic privilege has continued to allow discriminatory housing practices to continue. Communities with concentrations of white, low-poverty residents such as many on the north and northwest sides of the city actively petition and pressure their aldermen to keep affordable housing out of their neighborhoods. Aldermen must bend to the will of their constituents or risk losing their jobs. The study describes the attitudes of their constituents:
“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 impact 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.”
Aldermen in less affluent majority black or Latinx neighborhoods accept affordable housing developments because their constituents need them. Aldermen in rapidly gentrifying areas may try to demonstrate courage and take steps to create affordable housing, but they often have less power to stave off powerful interests and market forces behind rapid gentrification.
Violation of Civil Rights: The study says that aldermanic privileges have deliberately prevented low-income predominantly black and Latinx people from moving to other areas of the city that are predominantly white and low-income. Chicago has been called one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and many residents of all races take this as “how things are,” but in reality, elected officials have a direct hand in shaping the economic and racial compositions of their neighborhoods. The fact that the aldermen, the mayor, and the zoning board have all agreed to conduct business this way constitutes an egregious violation of civil rights. Low-income, predominantly black and Latinx people have been prevented outright from moving into many majority white, low-poverty neighborhoods through the machinations of aldermen and neighborhood interest groups. The result has been concentrations of public investments and amenities in some neighborhoods while others have been completely devalued and divested. Entire pockets of the city are concentrations of low-income housing with no ready access to jobs, grocery stores, or amenities that other areas of the city enjoy. Every facet of community life is affected: schools, businesses, parks and other amenities, public transit stops, bus schedules, police resources, community services, etc.
Other Consequences: Census data shows that from 2000-2010 alone, Chicago lost 181,000 black residents and since 1980, it has lost a full quarter of its black population. The study quotes Mary Pattillo, a Northwestern University sociology and African American studies professor, who describes the effects of “black flight”:
“[It] shifts Chicago’s role nationally as a center of African American culture, one that gave rise to everything from the blues to the first black president. It doesn’t mean there won’t be black creativity or black economic development, it’s just going to happen somewhere else.”
African American culture is at the “very core and constitution” of the city. With segregation and the loss of culture, Chicago risks losing its richness and vitality on top of enforcing racist and segregationist practices. This is not what a model city should look or feel like.
The Solutions: The study proposes and describes a number of steps the city must make in order to end the active segregationist practices that have guided the development of this city for decades. For a complete list and description, see the full study. The city must create and institute a plan for development that reflects an end to aldermanic prerogative and the creation of a protocol so each of the fifty wards will bear some responsibility for creating affordable housing. Currently the planning is fragmented and addresses issues such as homelessness, transportation, and economic development in isolation. The plan must not be ad hoc but instead comprehensive and specifically address racial equity and residential segregation issues. The city also needs to build in greater transparency and accountability in its comprehensive planning and zoning review processes and specifically include “a diverse array of community stakeholders throughout the process.”
Limiting the powers of the aldermen is not a popular idea, so the forces that seek to create the protocol will have to come from outside this political sphere. To be clear, the study does not propose an end to aldermanic power and influence in development. It states instead that aldermen would no longer be able to exercise their prerogative in stalling or blocking affordable housing developments if they meet the comprehensive plan guidelines. More thoughtful development of a model city might be able to bring about lasting social change and a more equitable distribution of resources.