Should Chicago Officials Have the Power to Stop Development Projects?

December 3, 2018

For the last hundred or so years, zoning regulation has been, along with public schools and local infrastructure, one of the three pillars supporting the case for local control of public policy. Like local schools and roads, zoning decisions mostly affect the lives of people who live nearby. Local residents are among the best positioned to voice demands for municipal services, and the political officials they elect can (but do not always) reflect the sentiment of the underlying community. But how information gets conveyed to politicians and what the politicians do with this information can vary widely. The same processes that can voice demand for a new road or necessary rezoning can stop reasonable projects if states do not have appropriate safeguards in place.

A recent case from Chicago highlights the problems that can accompany land use regulation rules that give alderman, the city’s sub-municipal officials, broad discretion to prevent new buildings in their districts. In Chicago, the city’s legislative branch consists of 50 alderman representing each of the city’s 50 wards. These officials have broad discretion over what may be built in their district including the ability to prevent individual projects, a power referred to as “aldermanic prerogative” or colloquially, “aldermanic privilege.” Housing activists have filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development arguing that the practice promotes housing discrimination as wealthy neighborhoods fail to allow newer, often-denser development.

This story has parallels in New York and Washington, D.C. In New York, community boards fill much of the same niche as Chicago’s aldermen, but are appointed positions filled by Borough Presidents. Washington’s “Advisory Neighborhood Commission” system is more closely analogous to Chicago’s, but power rests with 41 “commissions” representing sections of the city, each with 5-12 members representing different parts of the neighborhood.

In both New York and Washington, neighborhood officials have less power than their counterparts in Chicago. Specifically in Washington, individual ANC commissioners do not have the power to prevent a project in the sub-neighborhood they represent whatsoever. Nor does the ANC as a whole. The decisions by the neighborhood-wide commission, rather, are given “great weight” in decisions on whether zoning variances (and liquor licenses for bars and restaurants) are granted. While this distinction is small, the fact that sub-municipal officials do not have the power to stop projects at the commissioner or ANC level makes for a more-predictable land use regime than the one in place in Chicago.

There’s reason to believe Chicago’s system of aldermanic prerogative fails to live up to the justification for local control of zoning decisions. The power to approve or disapprove of particular projects is a power to determine property rights for landowners. Aldermanic privilege adds uncertainty to the property rights regime, preventing new housing in places where Chicagoans demand it. While alderman may argue they represent legitimate local interests in blocking unpopular projects, fear of having an otherwise-viable project nixed over concerns from NIMBY objections is enough to put a damper on building anywhere a subset of potential neighbors might object loudly enough.

The answer may be making Chicago’s alderman look more like D.C.’s ANC commissioners. There’s a useful place in American federalism for institutions that gather the opinions on neighborhood demands for a say in the planning process, but those opinions must be taken in context. Giving the opinions of sub-municipal officials “great weight” in determining development decisions that require variance, rather than giving them the ability to stop projects entirely would add the certainty in development that Chicago will need if it hopes to build its way out of its well-documented fiscal crisis.

Nick Zaiac is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Fellow in Commercial Freedom at the R Street Institute where his portfolio includes housing, postal and transportation issues. He holds a master's degree in economics from George Mason University. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Ali.
Catalyst articles by Nick Zaiac