Tuesday, November 07, 2006

From today's NYT, the first discussion I've ever seen in such a prominent place of one of the most appalling facts about Chicago governance.

What people do want, he said, is room to grow. To accommodate developers looking to build structures whose dimensions fall outside the parameters of zoning requirements, Mr. Matlak said he frequently changed the zoning of a particular lot. According to city tradition, aldermen have exclusive authority to change zoning requirements — often called spot zoning — to allow construction that would otherwise violate the city’s zoning ordinances.

This “aldermanic privilege” can work to preservationists’ benefit — or add to their consternation, depending on what is being changed and who is making the changes. Some aldermen act independently, bowing to the demands of developers, while others seek community input before making a zoning change that could result in a large condo building going up on a block of single-family homes.

That is to say, aldermen-- city councillors, members of a collective legislative body-- have massive-- as far as I cal tell, unlimited-- discretion to waive zoming requirements in the districts they represent. This makes them not only delegates of their districts but also feudal lords (or, to put it more politely, "discretion-wielding executives") over their districts.

Now: model something in your head. The aldermen have the collective authority to pass the zoning laws to which they will then have the individual authority to grant exemptions. What rules will they pass?

Of course, they could decide to pass rules that wouldn't ever need exemptions-- fair, transparent, easily-comprhehensible rules that accommodate the needs of the real estate market. That would, y'know, minimize the demands on their time. It's possible. When members of an academic department are passing curricular rules, that sort of consideration does come up: "what rule can we pass now that will save me from having to talk about this in office hours henceforth?"

On the other hand, they could pass rules that would make development all but impossible without their individual say-so-- rules such that all roads to development must go through the alderman's office. That wouldn't maximize the alderman's leisure time. But if, in the euphemism of microeconomics, "side payments" were permitted-- or massively unofficially tolerated-- then it could maximize some other maximands of the aldermen.

Now say that you've ever heard anything about city politics in the city of Chicago. Which model would you guess is chosen?

The truth isn't quite as simple as the model; but it's shockingly close. "Side payments" need not be bribes into the alderman's pockets. It can be "community investment" in the alderman's politically-preferred charitable causes, or local makework jobs that turn the developer into a branch of the alderman's reelection machine. But, one way or the other, the aldermen collectively make themselves separately into the bottlenecks for a massive amount of the city's real estate activity, and they're entirely clear-eyed about the rents that allows them to extract, the political friends it allows them to reward, and the political enemies it allows them to punish.

I referred to this long ago in the long-ago "Why is there no Gap in Hyde Park?" thread, but it seems generally to be a dirty little secret of Chicago politics. It seems to me that the NYT reporter was missing the bigger story in the midst of the "architectural preservation" one...

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