Chicagoans like to joke that there are only two seasons here, winter and construction. But from what I’ve seen, our two seasons are actually this: city planning and then resistance. From Woodlawn and Bronzeville to Pilsen and the Southeast Side, communities of color that have been sized up for private development are fighting the same pitched battle year in and year out. The activists want more good-paying jobs, green spaces and nice housing like their white and wealthy neighbors have. They want to stop the dangerous pollution, higher rents and generational displacement before it happens. Sometimes we win, but it’s like cutting each blade of grass with scissors when what we need is a lawnmower. Yet 9 times out of 10, private developers aided by city officials win the day. That could change if the city adopts into its We Will Chicago plan the battle strategies forged by community groups. But first, we need to understand how we got here.

Chicago is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, with yawning racial gaps in education, wealth and health that seem to only get worse over time. Those unchanging racial maps are the result of a history of intentionally racist practices and policies like redlining and restrictive racial covenants that have shaped our segregated neighborhoods and produced patterns of systemic disinvestment from communities of color. When we at Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights talk about “equitable development,” we mean that Chicago needs new practices and policies that will finally change the map. Small and big changes are needed—and we know that unless there is an intentional dismantling of the old systems, anything built on those inequalities will only perpetuate them.

What does equitable development actually look like? One my favorite definitions comes from The Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which describes it as when “quality of life outcomes, such as affordable housing, quality education, living wage employment, healthy environments and transportation are equitably experienced by the people currently living and working in a neighborhood, as well as for new people moving in.” They emphasize that “public and private investments, programs and policies in neighborhoods [should] meet the needs of residents, including communities of color, and reduce racial disparities, taking into account past history and current conditions.”

A core part of this idea is that we can’t just acknowledge the racist history of our policies; we have to accept that these are still being perpetuated today. In Chicago, programs like Tonika Johnson’s Folded Map Project show us the direct link between the historic redlining of Black communities and the way those neighborhoods continue to suffer from segregation, disinvestment and poverty.

Other efforts (like the Just Action project convened by Chicago United for Equity, Elevated Chicago and the National Public Housing Museum) embrace the necessary steps that happen after we acknowledge our history. Their theory for this historical reckoning requires acknowledging history, shifting power and embracing accountability. To practice equitable development in Chicago, we must continuously acknowledge the history of planning and development that has created our segregated city. But we must also understand how to shift power away from the structures that continue to perpetuate the harms. In doing so, we must acknowledge that the “market” has a bias toward profit that doesn’t fit with the idea of equitable development—and most for-profit developments will not create equitable outcomes unless they are required to do so.

There are some encouraging signs, but we are still a long way from that in Chicago. Private developers and city planners often give lip service to equitable development using two specific terms: “community engagement” and “community benefits.” But these concepts are rarely actually captured and incorporated into planning in a way that advances equity. That’s because developers have consistently treated “community engagement” as a more involved form of notice to the community. What’s missing is accountability in engagement or benefits. Accountability in community engagement requires that those who bear the burden of our history and its modern consequences have meaningful input on those projects. Accountability in community benefits requires that the development actively respond to the burdens that the project creates—along with all the historical context it steps into.

In our current system, there is a hunger for leadership to embrace this process, but an equal (or stronger) voice resists changes to the status quo. Alder Jeanette Taylor (20th) was elected because of the possibility of creating a power shift in a community suffering from disinvestment. But former-Alder John Arena (45th) lost his election because he stuck up for affordable housing in an area that does not contribute very much affordable housing to Chicago.

Even where the political forces are willing to address the issue, because there is no standard for how we should incorporate community engagement or benefits into developments, it takes a monumental effort. In Bronzeville, Alder Sophia King (4th) has pushed for significant community involvement and benefits in the massive Michael Reese Hospital redevelopment. But the project is so large that community engagement and community accountability is understandably challenging. It is inevitable that the process will never satisfy impacted people or even effectively address the potential inequities created by a mega-development taking advantage of lucrative federal tax incentives.

In these cases, we have to wonder why equitable development policies are left up to alders who are stuck between impossible political dynamics. The answer, I would argue, is that our history of planning created this dynamic in a way that intentionally makes including impacted voices difficult.

Because we have not set a city-wide policy for equitable development, or even a coordinated strategy to dismantle the existing racist paradigm, our current city policy is essentially to be OK with perpetuating harm.

This is the challenging landscape that community organizations and residents have to navigate. Although the balance of power is tilted against them, they have succeeded through organizing power and collective advocacy.

One of the most powerful tools we have in this fight is a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). As Julian Gross defined it in 1998, a CBA is a contract that requires a development to meet a variety of community needs. Put another way, CBAs ask a developer for concrete goals that address the community’s most important needs while mitigating harms and sharing the new investment with long-time residents. One of the defining features of a CBA is that it must be created and agreed to with substantial input, engagement and investment from a broad range of community organizations and residents who will be impacted by the development.

This is especially important in Chicago, where communities of color are vulnerable to exploitation and wealth extraction. That’s why the first stage of constructing a CBA focuses on input from those who are most vulnerable—like renters at risk of displacement, community members with pollution-related health issues, families harmed by school disinvestment and those impacted by mass incarceration.

Campaigns for CBAs are done in an atmosphere where developers and many public officials often share a mindset that any development is good development and is therefore a benefit unto itself. Developers often use the language of “community benefits” when they make city-mandated public presentations. It’s important to ask questions when developers promise these benefits: Who was involved in this conversation? How did the developer identify the “community stakeholders”? Does the benefit create meaningful accountability to people in the community and the likely impact of the development? If the answer is no, then it might be time to fight for a CBA centering the experiences and impacts of those in the community that will bear the brunt of the negative outcomes from a development. 

Only a few CBAs have been signed in Chicago. In one recent example, a new cannabis dispensary in West Loop called Nature’s Care signed a CBA with a community coalition that ties them to hiring, wage and profit-sharing commitments with people disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. But some groups, like the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, have gone beyond their CBA campaign to achieve a more elusive goal: shifting power from developers to community members.

The power shift that the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition achieved is extremely important in a notoriously pro-developer city like Chicago. Without it, communities must repeatedly ask for badly needed protections and equitable investments without any real options or leverage to achieve those goals. In most cases, residents simply have to hope for a “good” developer or a “good” alder that can push for meaningful change.

Unfortunately, each campaign is dealing with a symptom rather than the cause; without a broad city-wide policy that consistently pursues meaningful equitable development, there is very little leverage that community members can create to force this conversation. What leverage they do have is unfortunately dependent on having an alder who is aligned with their goals.

Our current system prioritizes negotiations between the developer, alder and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). The system provides an incentive for the developer to negotiate with DPD so that certain city-identified priorities are included. But in my experience, the DPD has not historically been able to create meaningful community engagement in order to identify community priorities. Plans are only shared begrudgingly or when a developer or alder decides it’s a good idea, mostly leaving the impacted community out of the process until the very last possible minute. The process removes two of the most important elements for impacted communities to engage in the process: time and information. At best, this is a convenient policy that those with access to the system seem to have no interest in changing. At worst, it feels intentional. 

The good news is that there is a chance to address this with the city’s proposed We Will Chicago plan. Policymakers are getting input from people across the city through volunteer-based research groups, workshops, “meetings in a box” and more, in order to construct a city-wide plan. The plan hopes to comprehensively address seven different pillars or topic areas. The pillars are all intertwined, and several of them directly address city-wide development and housing inequities. There is a tremendous opportunity for this plan to include meaningful accountability to impacted communities with any changes it makes to its development, housing and environmental policies.

I am cautiously optimistic that we may see a change to the city’s approach through the outcomes of the We Will Chicago plan. This plan is a massive effort that is attempting to center community voices in a manner that is decidedly not the “Chicago Way.” One reason to be optimistic is because people invited to the meetings have consistently elevated the idea that the plan must center the driving forces of equity and resiliency through a lens of historical reckoning. As a result of this advocacy, the We Will Chicago plan includes among its principles and themes equity, resiliency and historical reckoning.

But the We Will Chicago plan could easily be ineffective, dismissed or co-opted. It could only subtly influence Chicago’s development plans instead of creating a systemic shift. And although they are included, we do not fully know how the proposed plan will incorporate the concepts of equity, resiliency and historical reckoning.

CBA campaigns and equitable development movements rely on acknowledging history and shifting power. The We Will Chicago plan provides an opportunity to have this conversation on a city-wide level, rather than in isolated campaigns. To be successful, the We Will Chicago plan must incorporate these lessons into the way the city makes planning and policy decisions.

This type of change will not make community-driven campaigns and CBA campaigns any less necessary, but it could give them more leverage points to more effectively shift power. The city could use things like mandatory impact assessments (racial equity impact assessments, environmental impact assessments) that meaningfully center the conversation on people that face the innumerable negative consequences of our history, our innumerable struggles with disinvestment, our problems of displacement and our awful fair housing record. If the We Will Chicago plan meaningfully centers equity and historical reckoning in creating its policy recommendations then it might make people in power uncomfortable—and we need to be OK with that. Affordable housing might be built in higher-cost or exclusionary areas. Demolishing multi-unit buildings in gentrifying areas might be harder. Public investment might need to take more risks to create community ownership and build community wealth. Private developers might lose political access.

But until we see changes like these and create a system of true community engagement and accountability, advocates will continue fighting the same endless battle for justice.

Clifford Helm is an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. He has worked with community organizations, coalitions, nonprofits and cooperatives across Chicago on drafting community benefits agreements and developing strategies and policies to support equitable development. Currently, he focuses on voting rights, redistricting and election day voter protection.

The People’s Guide

City Bureau’s Will That New Development Benefit Your Community? The People’s Guide to Community Benefits Agreements and Alternatives informs, engages and equips Chicago residents to be active participants in the development process. Want to share this zine with your neighbors? You can read the full version and order print copies in English and Spanish at