Securing Neighborhood Access to Healthy Food: Chicago's Legislation to Limit Restrictive Land-Use Covenants

When a longtime local grocery store in Chicago's West Town neighborhood closed its doors, it agreed to lease the property to Dominick's, a large supermarket chain [1]. Alderman Manny Flores-of Chicago's 1st Ward, which includes West Town-strongly supported the continued use of the property as a grocery store, but he was concerned about the new supermarket's plan to restrict future use of the land in the event of that store's closure. His concern was well founded: more than a year earlier, another Dominick's store had pulled out of Chicago's West Lawn neighborhood, leaving some 50,000 square feet of vacant land and forcing residents to travel to other neighborhoods to get their food [2]. Alderman Flores wanted to prevent a similar blight from happening in West Town, while at the same time ensuring residents' continued access to fresh, healthy food retailers.

Agreements like the one used by Dominick's are known as restrictive covenants. Supermarket chains consider them an industry standard-and they were common practice throughout Chicago. Restrictive covenants limit use of vacated property for years to come, even after the land is sold or transferred to a new owner. They contribute to a problem plaguing communities across the country, including many neighborhoods in Chicago: food deserts-areas in which there are fast food restaurants but no grocery stores. By reducing basic access to fresh, healthy food, this practice can have a harmful impact on residents' health.

Together with Alderwoman Marge Laurino, Manny Flores proposed legislation that would ban restrictive covenants within Chicago. The outright ban was opposed by some retail industry associations who claimed it antibusiness. Alderman Flores noted "the industry was concerned initially about legislation that impacted an industry standard."

But the proposed legislation also had strong supporters, including the Metropolitan Planning Council and the American Planning Association. In an effort to reach middle ground, the legislation was adjusted to allow food and drug stores to place short-term covenants on vacated land if they planned to relocate within the same community; stores that were smaller than 7500 square feet or had covenants prior to May 11, 2005 were exempted from the law altogether. This concession appeased business associations and at the same gave residents some assurance that they need not fear permanent loss of their neighborhood grocery in the event of store closure. In September 2005, following the adjustments, the legislation was unanimously approved.

"The final policy offered a balance between public interest, promoting the public's health-and does not unduly hinder grocery stores," says Flores. He attributes the legislative success to working with all stakeholders and thinking about their issues and concerns. "[We were] looking at progressive legislation, analyzing the challenge, and creating a progressive solution."

Legislation to limit restrictive covenants is one tool that communities can use to ensure access to healthy food. It is still too early to see the impact of this legislation. However, used in conjunction with policies and programs to attract retail grocery stores, this ordinance holds great promise to prevent neighborhood blight and promote residents' health.


[1] Ormond, Earl. Dominick's Breaks Ground for Chicago Avenue Site. Near West Gazette. Accessed on 7/25/07.

[2] Skosey, Peter. Chicago City Council Ordinance May Curb Restrictive Land Covenants. Metropolitan Planning Council. June 8, 2005. Accessed on 7/25/07.

From: ENACT Local Policy Database. Check out Limit Restrictive Land Use Covenants for more details.