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Aldermanic Privilege Takes A Blow As Key Committee OKs Development With Strong Affordable Housing

Alderman Thomas Tunney

Allowing each city council member to have a veto over most development decisions in their ward is a longstanding Chicago tradition, but that tradition took a hit Tuesday afternoon. The council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards approved by a 12-5 vote GlenStar’s plan for a 297-unit apartment community at 8385 West Higgins Road near the CTA’s Blue Line Cumberland stop and O’Hare Airport.

The committee did so in the face of strong opposition from 41st Alderman Anthony Napolitano, who represents the Far Northwest Side neighborhood. He warned other members that approving the project would set a bad precedent and could backfire when, in the future, they ask fellow aldermen to back a development decision in their own wards.

“This is a complete overstep of our office and a complete overstep of what our ward wants,” Napolitano said during the virtual meeting.

GlenStar still needs the approval of the full city council.

It is just the latest twist on a proposal that has gone through a number of changes. GlenStar first proposed the development in 2017, then sued the city after Napolitano blocked it. The developer dropped the lawsuit, reconfigured its apartment proposal into a plan for 600K SF of offices, but went back to apartments when the coronavirus shook the office market.

This time around, GlenStar decided to include 59 affordable apartments, or about 20% of the total. That is more than the 10% required by the city in 2017, and it helped win over allies within city council and the Lightfoot administration, both of which have been pushing developers to include more affordable housing within new developments. The Chicago Plan Commission approved the idea in September.

The federal government may be providing an additional push. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has launched an investigation into Chicago’s practice of giving aldermen this power over development in their wards, commonly known as aldermanic privilege or prerogative, after fielding complaints from housing advocates that some city council members were using it to quash new affordable housing proposals for their wards, according to a Chicago Tribune report last week.

Napolitano said his opposition isn't based on GlenStar’s plan to include affordable housing. He told committee members the neighborhood was already dense, and its 96% occupancy rate meant there were hundreds of unoccupied apartments, most owned by small mom-and-pop landlords.

“Now we’re going to let a corporate developer come in and add 300 apartments which are not needed,” he said.

But that appeal fell flat.

“The item is passed and will be referred to the full city council tomorrow,” Committee Chairman and 44th Ward Alderman Thomas Tunney said after he tallied the votes.  

The lopsided result could be a sign that a majority of the full city council is ready to dispense with aldermanic privilege, at least for projects with a strong affordable housing component.

In a statement to Bisnow, Michael Rodriguez, who represents the 22nd Ward, didn't directly address the question of what the vote means for the future of aldermanic prerogative. But Rodriguez called affordable housing "a bedrock of thriving communities" and assailed the "backwards perspectives" of those standing in the way of progress on the issue.

"Economic segregation has plagued our society for far too long to the detriment of all; we need to push forward for all communities to meet the city's affordable housing needs," Rodriguez said. "I have been a proponent of affordable housing [led] by community input and will encourage my colleagues to follow suit."

UPDATE, DEC. 14, 4:43 P.M. CT: This story has been updated to include comments from Michael Rodriguez, who represents the city's 22nd Ward.