Northwest Side Affordable Housing Proposal Tests Lightfoot’s Resolve On ‘Aldermanic Privilege’
Alex Nitkin, The Daily Line
Oct 5, 2020
JEFFERSON PARK — A Northwest Side alderman is pushing forward with a plan to slow down a proposal for an affordable housing development in his ward, just as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has all but backed away from her campaign promise to loosen the tight grip aldermen have over zoning decisions.
At the same time, the city’s top attorney is warning aldermen not to invoke their ward-level powers to push for more affordable housing to be included in projects on their own turf.
Asked by The Daily Line last week during a town hall event organized by The TRiiBE whether Lightfoot foresees a way to limit aldermanic control over housing, an issue she repeatedly raised in 2019, the mayor said she does not “know that aldermanic prerogative is the barrier” to creating more affordable housing.
“The barrier that we’ve heard over and over again … is just making sure that these deals work — making sure that there is a funding stream to support affordable housing,” Lightfoot said.
Her remarks came one week before the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards is set to hear a proposal by Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) to downzone a property at 6001 W. Lawrence Ave., which would hobble nonprofit developer Full Circle Communities’ plan to build an all-affordable 48-unit housing development on the site.
The developer began putting together plans for a pair of four-story apartment buildings at the site last year after realizing its existing zoning would allow for it, meaning it would not need direct approval from the alderman, according to Full Circle Communities CEO Joshua Wilmoth.
Wilmoth added that he emailed Sposato in January to alert him to the plans, but it was only after the proposal secured tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority in July that the alderman announced his opposition, saying neighbors had not been given the opportunity to vet it.
The state housing authority “said they checked all the boxes, but they never checked the box about community approval, aldermanic approval [or] a traffic study,” Sposato said.
Wilmoth said he is “disappointed” in the alderman’s push to rezone the property, but he is “heartened” by “cordial and professional” conversations he has had with Sposato and hopes to reach a compromise. Full Circle still plans to acquire the property in the next month and is aiming to break ground next spring, Wilmoth said.
Sposato said he would support the development if Full Circle reduced its unit count from 48 units to 32, saying the larger proposal would exacerbate traffic and parking availability in the busy intersection. He added that he has no inherent objection to the affordable units, calling any accusation to the contrary “totally ridiculous.”
“I’m just trying to take control to say there’s no problem with 32 units,” Sposato said. “But 48 won’t work.”
When asked whether the mayor’s administration will oppose Sposato’s downzone, Eugenia Orr, a spokesperson for Lightfoot, declined to answer but wrote in a statement to The Daily Line on Friday that the city “remains committed to increasing access to affordable housing, especially near transit lines across all 77 neighborhoods.”
“We will continue to work with the City Council and all stakeholders to ensure that our land-use decisions reflect a commitment to an inclusive, equitable Chicago,” the statement continued.
The Chicago Department of Housing supports the Full Circle Communities proposal and has agreed to offer $1.6 million in city tax credits, according to a department spokesperson. The developer’s current plan does not involve city-backed financing.
Full Circle Communities kicked up a fierce backlash in 2017 when it proposed a 100-unit mixed-income housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy., about a half-mile east of the Lawrence Avenue site. The proposal, later trimmed to 75 units, earned zoning approval with the support of former Ald. John Arena (45th) and broke ground earlier this year. Arena was unseated in last year’s city elections by Ald. Jim Gardiner.
A spokesperson for the group Neighbors for Affordable Housing, which sprang up in the aftermath of the Northwest Highway proposal, wrote in a statement to The Daily Line that any move to block the Lawrence Avenue development would “result in a continuation of a pattern of segregation” on the city’s Far Northwest Side.
The spokesperson also took a shot at Lightfoot’s dismissal of aldermanic prerogative as a barrier to affordable housing, noting that Neighbors for Affordable Housing is party to a federal complaint against the city “specifically because aldermanic prerogative has been used as a barrier to building affordable housing units equitably throughout the City.”
“Chicagoans need the 48 units of affordable and accessible housing being proposed at 6001 W. Lawrence, and we hope aldermanic prerogative will not be used improperly to stop this project development,” the Neighbors for Affordable Housing statement continued.
City attorney warns aldermen on pushing beyond affordability rules
During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot proposed to push an Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance, which would create a “streamlined approval process” for any development with affordable units proposed in a ward where less than 10 percent of housing stock is affordable.
But the mayor has since stopped promoting that plan, and aldermen have largely dismissed it.
Instead, her administration has warned aldermen not to use aldermanic privilege as a cudgel to force the construction of more affordable housing, a common practice among multiple aldermen in gentrifying wards.
In response to an email last week in which Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner warned aldermen not to push beyond the legal limits of minority hiring requirements, Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who consistently allows Uptown developers to build the minimum of legally required affordable units, asked Flessner for clarification on the limits on the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance.
“I’ve heard it said a number of times that it’s okay for aldermen to use aldermanic prerogative to interpret the Affordable Requirements Ordinance as a ‘floor, not a ceiling’ for going beyond what is spelled out in this ordinance,” Cappleman wrote. “Is it appropriate to make a requirement to developers to go beyond what is spelled out in the ARO?”
Flessner responded by affirming Cappleman’s approach, writing that the city code does not allow city officials to “deny necessary governmental approvals on the basis of a property owner’s refusal to exceed regulatory requirements.”
“A ward-by-ward and project-by-project application of ARO requirements is not predictable and has the potential to discourage development in Chicago,” Flessner wrote. “In addition, ad hoc application of land use regulations has the potential to violate basic constitutional principles of fairness and due process.”
Cappleman told The Daily Line last week that he has been working to make sure more people understand those legal restraints, noting that community groups in Uptown have criticized him for not demanding the inclusion of more affordable units in new developments like JDL Development’s Eight Eleven and Praedium Development’s proposed apartment tower at 4600 N. Broadway.
“My belief has always been that when there’s a problem, you change the system that caused it — you don’t do a quick fix,” Cappleman said. “And because I follow these rules, I get beat up on social media. I get blamed for the loss of affordable housing in the 46th Ward.”
The Uptown alderman raised the issue again in a Sept. 22 meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate, saying that aldermen who risk legal exposure by negotiating for more affordable units “are seen as the hero, and I’m seen as the villain.”
That prompted a rebuke from Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who has made an open practice for decades of trying to squeeze individual developers to increase the proportion of affordable units they include in new apartment buildings.
“Why are you worried about other [aldermen] asking to do more?” Burnett said. “It sounds like you player-hating, man.”
Cappleman published a YouTube video of his testimony, including when Department of Housing Comm. Marisa Novara said the city “cannot require” affordable unit inclusion beyond the minimums set out in the city’s rules.
“I want this all out,” Cappleman said, adding that he does not believe aldermen should be empowered to approve or veto zoning changes.
“I believe the city is in the mess it’s in because of housing precisely because of aldermen,” Cappleman said. “We are at fault, and it’s because we have 50 aldermen playing by 50 sets of rules.”