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Ending Member Privilege

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eye on the news

Ending Member Privilege

Why the structure of local elections matters for urban jobs and housing. August 18, 2020
New York
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

New York City’s economy is in serious trouble, but its public officials are rejecting projects that would produce thousands of jobs. Late last month, Council Member Carlos Menchaca announced his opposition to rezoning and redeveloping Industry City, a commercial and light-industrial complex in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. His opposition will likely kill the project.

According to the unwritten rules of aldermanic privilege, the council will defer to Menchaca because the rezoning falls within his district, regardless of the project’s potential in aiding the city’s recovery from a devastating recession. If Menchaca feels that the Industry City developers have not made enough concessions to secure his support, he can effectively veto the project—and the thousands of jobs that would have come with it.

The informal observance of so-called member privileges is a common feature of city councils elected from single-member districts. In New York, the council consists of one council member from each of the city’s 51 districts. Aldermanic privilege effectively grants members executive authority over certain decisions—such as land use—within the districts they represent. In a city where council members have veto power over new commercial or residential development in their districts, the opposition of a vocal minority of neighborhood voters can cascade into anti-development sclerosis that undermines housing affordability and job growth citywide.

Two recent research papers find that cities that make use of district or ward-based elections for city council permit fewer new housing units than cities that rely on at-large elections, in which all residents vote for council members who represent the entire city, rather than a specific district or ward. Upjohn Institute economist Evan Mast recently evaluated housing-permit data between 1980 and 2016 from 300 American towns with more than 2,500 people to determine what happens when cities switch from at-large to district elections. He finds that towns that switched from at-large to district elections reduced the number of housing units they permitted by 21 percent.

Mast breaks out the permitting impact by housing type, finding that the negative effect of district elections was stronger on multifamily housing units—a decrease of 38 percent—than for detached single-family units, which declined by 11 percent. The more severe drop-off in multifamily housing permits likely reflects the fact that such projects tend to attract stronger opposition from nearby neighbors. They also tend to require more onerous approval processes that give district representatives more opportunities to intervene.

In a separate study, political scientists Michael Hankinson of George Washington University and Asya Magazinnik of MIT considered the housing effects of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which required more than 100 cities to switch from at-large to district elections. The intent of the law was to increase minority representation in local government. In American cities where voting is racially polarized, at-large plurality voting—a common system in which each voter picks one candidate for each of the available seats on the council—is more likely to underrepresent minority voters on city councils, since even large minority groups can be outvoted by the white majority. To make minority representation more likely, voting-rights laws like the 2001 measure in California often require cities to switch at-large council elections to single-member district elections, in which some district maps are drawn to ensure a majority of minority voters.

Hankinson and Magazinnik’s work points to a trade-off: though district elections improved minority representation in California cities, the switch from at-large to district elections caused a 48 percent decrease in the permitting of multifamily housing units—units that would have served as a gateway to urban opportunities for households, including minority households, with modest incomes. They also find that, after the switch to district elections, the residents of minority neighborhoods who oppose new development are more successful in stopping it.

In short, district elections reduce multifamily housing development by making it easier for anti-development activists from all districts, including majority-minority districts, to block it. The new multifamily housing that does get built is therefore sited more evenly between minority and white constituencies. A win for political equity, perhaps, but one that comes at the cost of housing developments that benefit younger workers, immigrants, and some of the lower-income minority households that district elections are meant to help.

Weaker housing growth is not the only cost associated with electing city legislators from single-member districts. The switch from at-large to district elections also correlates with weaker political competition, with fewer candidates seeking available seats in district elections. Evidence also suggests that city councils elected from single-member districts are associated with greater unfunded pension liabilities and the deferral of necessary infrastructure spending. Members find it more politically expedient to direct non-infrastructure spending to their districts than to pay for long-term citywide priorities.

The evidence is clear that at-large elections are better for housing and jobs, though reverting to the most common scheme for localities in the United States—a plurality at-large election in which each voter picks one candidate for each of the available seats on the council—could, in many cities, reintroduce the problem of minority-vote dilution. Fortunately, several other variations exist that would enable minority representation, while avoiding the growth-sapping downside of election by district.

For example, mixed electoral systems—in which some council seats are elected by district and others remain at-large—could retain minority representation while offering greater zoning flexibility compared with city councils elected exclusively from single-member districts. If some seats remain at-large, the quid pro quo of aldermanic privilege might lose enough appeal that rezoning requests would more likely win approval. Roughly one-fifth of U.S. cities use some sort of mixed approach, but more empirical work is needed to know which sorts of mixed systems deliver minority representation and development.

The prospect of designing at-large elections to generate proportional representation—using approaches such as ranked-choice voting (RCV), cumulative voting, or the single non-transferable vote—holds promise, too. Some evidence shows that the use of RCV in an at-large election—the approach used in Cambridge, Massachusetts—favors candidates from ethnic and political minority groups. Cambridge fills its nine city council seats in one at-large election. Under RCV, voters rank their preferred candidates on the ballot, and a candidate that reaches a threshold of 10 percent of the total number of ballots, plus one, will win one of the nine seats. Any votes in excess of the threshold get reallocated to voters’ second choices until all the seats are filled.

This at-large RCV approach gives groups of likeminded voters, even those in the minority, a better chance of electing their preferred candidate, since the necessary vote threshold is relatively low. In Cambridge, a cohesive group of voters that comprises 10 percent of the population will win a seat on the council. Cambridge happens to be not especially friendly to development, but the relevant question is whether it permits more housing and development under at-large RCV than it would with election by-district. If the recent work of Mast, Hankinson, and Magazinnik is any guide, the answer is probably yes.

At-large council elections that involve cumulative voting or single non-transferable votes would work to much the same end. Under cumulative voting, voters have as many votes as there are council seats to fill, but they are free to give any one candidate multiple votes. Under the single nontransferable vote method, each voter is limited to voting for one candidate, regardless of the number of open seats on the council. In both election schemes, groups of likeminded voters in the minority can concentrate their voting to elect their preferred candidates.

Properly designed, proportional representation would allow for minority representation and foster greater political competition, while undermining the politics of aldermanic privilege that let individual council members veto projects—like Industry City in Brooklyn—with citywide benefits. As David Schleicher of Yale Law School has pointed out, the lack of political competition in many of America’s large cities is a key reason that aldermanic privilege is appealing in the first place. In a city like New York, Democrats face scant competition for council seats from Republicans or other political parties. Local Democratic leaders therefore face only weak incentives to organize their council members behind the sorts of generally beneficial policies (like the Industry City rezoning) that would build the party’s brand in the face of a serious rival. Instead, Democratic council members can focus primarily on catering to the district-specific preferences of the narrow constituencies that elect them to what, in most cases, are safely Democratic seats. In American cities dominated by one party, getting council members to think beyond their districts will require electoral reforms that introduce greater political competition.

Electoral reform is a tall order—but it’s achievable. Even New York, a city with 51 council members from 51 districts, recently enacted significant changes to its electoral system. In 2019, voters approved an amendment to the city charter establishing the use of RCV citywide in 2021. In New York, RCV will be limited to primary races and special elections. Though RCV will apply to city council races, the council will still be elected from 51 single-member districts rather than at-large—or, more realistically for such a large council, through a small number of multimember districts. RCV primaries may or may not generate better candidates for district seats, but the council itself will remain district-based and dominated by one party political party. Absent strong leadership, the logic of aldermanic privilege will therefore continue to undermine the growth of jobs and housing in the city.

For now, reformers in New York should focus on reversing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s observance of member privilege. Member privilege is a choice that the city’s elected leaders make rather than a rule that they must observe. An effective leader, recognizing the need for important development projects, should build coalitions on the council that address the reasonable concerns of members from affected districts while bringing unreasonable objectors to heel. As Eric Kober points out, this was generally the practice of New York mayors before de Blasio, dating back to Fiorello La Guardia.

Yet, to read his comments on the Industry City rezoning, someone unfamiliar with his office could be forgiven for thinking that de Blasio is just a casual and powerless observer. “Obviously, it would bring a lot of jobs and that’s something we would appreciate in this city,” said the mayor disinterestedly, “but again, that’s really between the private developer and the Council to work that through.” For a mayor who campaigned on big promises to expand the supply of market-rate and subsidized housing, de Blasio’s adherence to aldermanic privilege is one of the chief reasons his administration has largely failed to follow through.

If the Industry City controversy won’t change de Blasio’s mind about aldermanic privilege, it is at least changing some minds on the council: Ritchie Torres and Donovan Richards, representatives from the Bronx and Queens, recently penned an op-ed calling on the council to support the project over the objections of Menchaca. Torres and Richards are right. The concerns of members from districts affected by rezonings deserve a fair hearing. But on projects that inevitably have implications for all New Yorkers, their objections shouldn’t be treated as sacrosanct. (It’s telling, however, that Torres and Richards will be leaving the council soon, having each won nomination to higher office. Were they to remain in the body, it is uncertain whether they would call for the elimination of precedent so strongly.)

The key question is whether the next mayor—to be elected in November of 2021—will return to the city’s traditional approach, in which the executive takes an active role in building coalitions of council members in support of projects that generate jobs and housing. It’s a question to which the growing number of mayoral candidates, including council speaker Corey Johnson, will need to have a good answer if one of them is to lead the city’s recovery and revitalization.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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