Elliot Louthen

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Prerogative is the devolution of power to a single legislator over decisions in her district. In cities with a prerogative regime, when the city council votes on an issue or an administrative agency makes a decision concerning a specific district, decision-makers defer to that district’s legislator. This deference gives the legislator exclusive executive authority over her district. In Chicago and Philadelphia, legislators have infamously wielded prerogative and tied the practice to corruption. But in addition to corruption, prerogative gives rise to another, more pernicious issue. When applied to decisions related to affordable housing, prerogative perpetuates racial segregation through legislator vetoes. Prerogative empowers legislators to unilaterally block the land use and financing approvals necessary to develop affordable housing in their districts. As legislators from wealthy districts block affordable housing through prerogative, affordable housing remains concentrated in racially isolated communities, thereby further entrenching existing patterns of housing segregation.

Prerogative’s opponents have proposed legislative reform to curb the practice, but these proposals do not sufficiently account for political inertia: legislators are unlikely to curtail their own power. In the absence of legislative reform, housing advocates should turn to the courts. Judicial intervention can serve as the catalyst to effectuate land use reform that constrains prerogative and promotes equitably sited affordable housing.

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