City councils fuel housing crisis with individual members’ veto power
On Tuesday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a test for New York City Council candidates seeking its approval in this year’s election. She calls the project, run by her political action committee, a “sort of certification” – a progressive good faith checklist that several candidates in a given race might complete.
One question relates to the long-standing custom in New York known as ‘deference of members’, in which the city council votes on the approval, for example, of a new large affordable housing project according to the wishes of the government. member of the council in whose district he is located. “Will you vote for zoning changes to include mixed-income housing projects in a better-off neighborhood if the local council member opposed it?” asks for the questionnaire. In other words: are you for the deference of the members or for doing something about the housing crisis in New York?
It’s not just her. On Wednesday, on the opposite side of the Democratic spectrum, mayoral candidate Andrew Yang said he would also support a policy of eliminating member deference.
It sounds like a bit of momentum behind the idea that when it comes to approving new buildings, local control has not produced a fairer and more equitable city. “I won’t play with your district if you don’t play with mine” has long been the preferred policy of politicians in rich and poor neighborhoods in most of the country’s largest cities. But its effect has been to restrict the creation of new housing, foster corruption, and entrench race and class lines.
Theoretically, members of the governing bodies of large cities only have a say in major changes such as the modernization of neighborhoods, that is, when builders are allowed to build taller and denser structures. than before. In reality, however, thanks to outdated zoning codes and other municipal approvals, each local representative wields great power over even minute changes to the cityscape.
Take the example of Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has come forward to end this practice, known there as “alderman’s privilege.” In the Chicago system, even trivial changes in buildings and lots require crawling ahead of the chief of each ward, perpetuating the city’s notorious culture of corruption and self-trafficking that has sent dozens of aldermen to Chicago in prison over the years. The most recent indictment involved South Side electricity broker Ed Burke, who faces extortion charges – are you ready for this? –the renovation of a Burger King drive-thru.
The biggest problem in Chicago, according to a Chicago Fair Housing Alliance study: The city lets aldermen decide where affordable housing is going and, therefore, lets them maintain rigid racial boundaries. Nothing on this subject will change, concludes the report, “as long as the structural barriers imposed by the Alderman prerogative are not dismantled”. This transfer to local poles was infamous deployed maintain segregation in Chicago during the era of social housing construction, but it is still in effect today.
According to the ALFC study, Alderman control reduced the land available for apartment development to just 20% of the city. Three-quarters of this land is outside predominantly white neighborhoods; 98% of new and affordable multi-family dwellings are built there. A quarter of this land is in predominantly white neighborhoods; 2 percent of new and affordable multi-family dwellings are built there.
Chicago electrical broker faces extortion charges for remodeling a Burger King drive-thru.
A version of this “privilege” policy also exists in Los Angeles, where a San Fernando Valley council member appears to be backtracking on a 55 unit homeless housing project approved for its neighborhood – the only project out there in the city’s $ 1.2 billion affordable housing bond measure. Other neighborhoods have given the green light for hundreds and hundreds of units; this section of the Northwest Valley has only one proposed building, authorized but currently under review.
And there is in Philadelphia, where a Pew Study Over a six-year period, it was found that not only did the 10-member city council not override the member prerogative once, but the vote was unanimous on 726 of the 730 occasions.
Why does this system give bad results? It is not rocket science. New housing, subsidized or not, can help alleviate homelessness, overcrowding, affordability and shrinking city-wide tax bases. But it can exacerbate neighborhood-level issues such as traffic, the size of classrooms, and lack of parking. By delegating decision-making to individual neighborhoods, cities have internally recreated the fragmented and selfish governance model that characterizes their suburbs.
For an example of what happens when a politician tries to tackle the problem, look no further than Chicago Mayor Lightfoot. She stripped the aldermen of the control of licenses and permits within hours of taking office. But then she put the struggle for Alderman privilege on hold. City council reformer colleague Scott Waguespeck gave a simple reason why she did it: she would lose the vote.
This is the heart of the matter. In most cities, this neighborhood rights policy dates back decades, and its philosophical foundation lies in the era of urban renewal in the middle of the century. Black leaders seized the opportunity to take control, protecting their neighborhoods after the devastation of road projects and other environmental hazards. White neighborhoods feared racial integration in the form of social housing from liberal planners like Elizabeth Wood of the Chicago Housing Authority.
City planners today could hardly be more toothless in comparison, but in all of these cities few politicians have attempted to dismantle a system that, as the Chicago Fair Housing Study shows, traded in the possibility of ‘city-wide desegregation to ensure neighborhood control.
Nowadays, it is difficult to know who genuinely believes that this feudal system is good because local control is important. and who simply wants to maintain extractive interests in each new project. The latter goal sort of makes sense, by the way: it’s hard for cities to fundraise to solve their many social issues, and it’s hard to fight at city meetings for a piece of the pie. Pay-to-play policies for new construction can directly allocate millions of dollars to new local assets such as community centers, if that’s what a council member or city councilor wants.
Yet the disadvantages of local deference to housing outweigh the advantages. In California, most supporters have given up on influencing city politicians. Instead, the cutting edge legislation occurs mostly in the state, and consists of more liberal state politicians who anticipate their local peers. One example is the new state policy granting general permission for accessory housing units, also known as grandma’s apartments or backyard cottages. This set of laws struck down hundreds of city bans and paved the way for an explosion of small infill housing in cities like Los Angeles. (A similar strategy can be in progress in illinois.)
In New York, meanwhile, don’t let the AOC-Andrew Yang roster convince you that politicians are ready to end the practice. On the contrary: the New York City Council is prepare to give members such veto power on the construction of hotels. Hotel builders say it will halt construction of new hotels as tourism recovers, pushing thousands of tourists into Airbnbs who are chipping away at the city’s housing stock and discouraging low-budget visitors . Three years ago, such a policy was introduced in some areas of the city, including Tribeca and Long Island City. The result? No new hotels.
The depreciating effect on housing growth is similar and its consequences are increasingly extreme. No politician wants to unilaterally disarm his district. Still, with AOC dissenting rumblings at the newly elected Los Angeles councilor Nithya Raman, from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to candidate Andrew Yang, there is reason to hope that the privilege of council members could finally be verified.
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