Solving America’s Housing Crisis Requires More Democracy, Not Less

Solving America’s Housing Crisis Requires More Democracy, Not Less

A recent article by Slate’s Henry Grabar claims Mayor Lightfoot “stripped aldermen of control of licensing and permitting within hours of taking office.” That’s simply not true. 

In his article, titled “City Councils Are Villains of the Housing Crisis,” Grabar also makes the mistake of conflating “aldermanic privilege” with “aldermanic prerogative.” While both terms refer to the power held by the 50 members of the Chicago City Council, understanding the difference between aldermanic privilege and prerogative is important for anyone who wants to address America’s housing crisis and transform local government for the better.

Defining aldermanic privilege

Aldermanic privilege is the way Chicagoans refer to the power that is held by every member of a legislative body – the power to make requests of departments and agencies under the control of the executive, and to have those requests given serious consideration.

U.S. congressmen use this power when they reach out to the Postal Service to find out what happened to their constituents’ mail. As a caseworker in the office of the U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, I used this power hundreds of times to petition Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to grant stays of removal for individuals facing deportation. 

Most people expect their elected representatives to reach out to the executive branch and make requests that are in the best interests of their communities. Oftentimes, we need our local elected representative to help us sort out a bureaucratic nightmare.

Before she became mayor, Lori Lightfoot requested I use my aldermanic privilege to prevent a cell phone tower from being installed atop a building several hundred feet from her home. 

She wasn’t the first constituent to reach out to me on this matter. I had received emails from neighbors concerned about potential adverse health effects. In receipt of their requests, I did what any responsible elected representative would do: I reached out to the City and asked what could be done about the soon to be installed cell phone tower. The City’s answer: nothing. The permit had been issued, and rescinding the permit at this juncture would likely lead to a lawsuit the City would lose.

Compare my experience as a freshman Council member seeking to use my aldermanic privilege on behalf of Lori Lightfoot and her neighbors to that of indicted Alderman Ed Burke, who used his aldermanic privilege to rescind a driveway permit for a Burger King – while the concrete was being poured. Federal prosecutors allege Alderman Burke was motivated not by constituents’ concerns, but by his desire to extract a campaign contribution from the world’s richest Burger King franchisee.

These two examples of how aldermen seek to use their privilege begs the question: why did the City grant Alderman Burke’s request while rejecting mine? The answer is simple: I was a freshman alderman who had supported the mayor’s progressive challenger. Alderman Burke was the longest serving Council member, the chair of the powerful Finance Committee, and a mayoral ally. 

This dynamic plays out at the federal level as well. A federal agency will give more weight to a request from the Senate Budget Committee Chair than from a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives. When Democrat Barack Obama was in the White House, ICE would roll out the red carpet for Democratic lawmakers, like Congressman Luis Gutierrez, to address those lawmakers’ concerns. As a congressional aide, I staffed many meetings between Congressman Gutierrez and ICE. When Trump was in the White House, Democratic lawmakers were literally locked out while attempting to visit ICE detention centers.

What’s clear in these examples is the simple truth of aldermanic privilege – it has always been dependent on mayoral power, that is, the power of Chicago’s executive branch to approve or deny the requests being made of departments under mayoral control.  

Mayor Lightfoot didn’t strip “aldermen of control of licensing and permitting.” Aldermen have never had control over approving business licenses, or driveway permits, or the installation of cell phone towers. Aldermen only ever had, and continue to have, the ability to pass ordinances, and then make requests of the executive branch and the bureaucrats that implement the ordinances City Council passed.

Mayor Lightfoot’s executive order

Far from stripping power from aldermen, Mayor Lightfoot’s aldermanic prerogative executive order simply did the following: (1) require aldermen to put in writing any requests they were making of City departments under her control; and (2) require City department heads to track those aldermanic requests, and establish a standardized criteria and guidelines for their department’s handling of said requests.

I praised Mayor Lightfoot’s executive order when it was issued, and praise it here again, because it sets the floor for good governance in Chicago. As a former congressional caseworker, I had been trained to always send a formal letter when making a request. And I had grown accustomed to referencing federal regulations and congressional standards when reaching out to federal agencies to make requests.

Entering the Chicago City Council in 2015, I was frustrated to learn that there was no written guide, beyond our city code, that explained the regulations for processing permits and requests. How could my office effectively advocate on behalf of my constituents if we didn’t even know the internal regulations and guidelines followed by city bureaucrats? Mayor Lightfoot’s executive order would make it easier to do my job.

I can’t blame Mr. Grabar for mischaracterizing Mayor Lightfoot’s aldermanic prerogative executive order. For starters, the mayor’s own executive order had conflated aldermanic privilege with prerogative. And the substance of the executive order has been misreported many times by local journalists dealing with tight deadlines and downsized newsrooms. 

But now that we understand aldermanic privilege and its current status under Mayor Lightfoot’s executive order, let’s turn our attention to the true boogeyman of Mr. Grabar’s article, aldermanic prerogative. 

Defining aldermanic prerogative

Aldermanic prerogative is the New York City Council’s “member deference” described by Mr. Grabar. While aldermanic privilege speaks to the relationship between the executive and legislature, aldermanic prerogative speaks to the relationship among the members of the legislative branch. In Chicago, aldermanic prerogative is where Council members recognize each other as the elected decision makers for their wards. Aldermanic prerogative is what empowers aldermen to pass legislation that will only impact the ward they were elected to represent.

Shortly after taking office, I used my aldermanic prerogative to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration from selling a large city-owned parking lot to a connected developer. Why? I had been elected on a promise to support the construction of an all-affordable housing development to replace the parking lot. Aldermanic prerogative meant that I could veto the Emanuel administration’s plan to turn the lot over to a private developer for luxury housing. Because the lot was in my ward, my City Council colleagues would only support a plan for the lot if I gave the go-ahead. After a years-long battle with the Emanuel administration about the redevelopment of the lot, aldermanic prerogative helped secure the City Council’s support for the millions in public funding and the zoning change needed to build a 100-unit, 100% affordable housing development at the site.

Not all examples of aldermanic prerogative are as high stakes as securing affordable housing for one’s community. Last term, an intersection in my ward had become notorious for collisions. Residents requested a full-way stop sign be installed. Using my aldermanic privilege, I reached out to the Department of Transportation and requested the installation of a stop sign. The department rejected my community’s request, citing the intersection’s proximity to a street light. Using my aldermanic prerogative, I introduced and passed an ordinance requiring the installation of a full-way stop sign. The number of collisions at the intersection has significantly gone down. 

Aldermanic prerogative and segregation

So what’s not to like about aldermanic prerogative? During my tenure aldermanic prerogative has helped me deliver a needed stop sign, an all-affordable transit-oriented development, and many other benefits for my ward. Well, affordable housing advocates have found that aldermanic prerogative helps “maintain the city’s rigid patterns of racial segregation.” That was the finding in a 2018 report by Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), a report Grabar cites to help make the case that local elected officials are to blame for the lack of affordable housing in many American cities. 

The 2018 CAFHA report found that aldermanic prerogative maintained racial segregation in Chicago because aldermen representing predominantly white areas were likely to oppose the construction of affordable housing in their wards. The conclusion of the 2018 CAFHA report, and Grabar’s article, is that local control must go – to be replaced by state or citywide mandates. But can centralizing decision-making and ending local control really guarantee a more equitable Chicago? The answer is no, because the same political considerations and fear of racial integration that has led aldermen of predominantly white wards to historically oppose affordable housing can permeate state legislatures, planning departments, mayors’ offices, and unelected planning boards. 

I shudder to think what would have happened to my community if all zoning and development had been controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Department of Planning and Development. The result wouldn’t have been more equitable development, but backroom deals between the mayor’s office and connected developers. My ward’s 100-unit, all-affordable housing development would never have been built.

But if centralizing decision making isn’t the solution to get more affordable housing built then what is? The answer isn’t less democracy, it’s more. 

The socialist solution to aldermanic prerogative

As Grabar notes in his article, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is asking NYC Council candidates seeking her endorsement: Will you vote in favor of zoning changes to include mixed-income housing developments in an affluent neighborhood if the local council member was opposed? Intrinsic to this question is the socialist notion of an elected official using their power to: (1) take on rich and powerful interests, and (2) stand with poor and working class people.

AOC’s question for NYC Council candidates shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of less democracy or for stripping communities of control, but as an endorsement of a democratic system where poor and working people have political power, and the elected representatives of the working class use the power of their offices to advance working class interests – like securing the construction of new affordable housing in every neighborhood.

In Chicago, members of the Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus are using the power of our offices, including aldermanic prerogative, to advance the interests of poor and working class Chicagoans and secure new affordable housing for our wards. As discussed by H Kapp-Klote in a January 2020 article in Shelterforce, democratic socialist and progressive aldermen are using our aldermanic prerogative to promote “local community organizing around zoning equity.”

Through local participatory planning processes, working class Chicagoans are empowered to collectively make the zoning and land use decisions that will impact their neighborhoods. These participatory planning processes have delivered affordable housing in all five wards led by Democratic Socialist Caucus members.

The keys to success for these participatory planning processes is their emphasis on inclusivity, transparency, equity, and democracy. Meetings are held at times and locations convenient for working people. Translation into the community’s most common languages is provided. Children are welcomed, and child care is advertised and provided for large, high stakes community assemblies. Local independent political organizations (IPOs) and grassroots community groups organize to bring working class neighbors into these participatory planning processes. Every resident, regardless of their educational background or socioeconomic status, is treated with respect, and meaningful community conversations on good zoning policy are fostered.

In a 2019 follow-up report on aldermanic prerogative, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law and CAFHA lay out how the city can go about implementing their 2018 recommendation to replace aldermanic prerogative with a comprehensive citywide zoning and development plan. Their solution: a robust and transparent civic-engagement process that couples a citywide participatory planning process with local community development councils. The report specifically cites the 35th Ward Community-Driven Zoning and Development process developed by my aldermanic office as a model for the type of “transparent and formalized processes for community input” needed to replace aldermanic prerogative. 

The writers of the 2019 CAFHA report may not know it, but they’re endorsing a form of socialism. Because socialism is democracy, and democracy is socialism. As the past six years in Chicago’s democratic socialist led wards has shown, we can deliver affordable housing for our communities by empowering working class people to be the decision makers on the zoning and development impacting their neighborhoods. This practice should be expanded from a handful of democratic socialist and progressive led wards to the city as a whole. Black, Latinx, and working class people of all backgrounds should be invited into community assemblies to set a citywide plan that will ensure equitable development and integrated neighborhoods.

Democratic socialists know that the real villain of the housing crisis is an economic system and political order that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. There’s no silver bullet to upend that order. Reducing the number of people that make the decisions impacting communities most certainly won’t. Only by putting more power in the hands of poor and working class people can we win the affordable housing our communities need and deserve.


Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is Alderman of Chicago’s 35th Ward, representing portions of Albany Park, Avondale, Hermosa, Irving Park, and Logan Square. Now in his second term, he serves as the current chair of the Democratic Socialist Caucus of the Chicago City Council.