Abolish TIFs now, the CivicLab urges; give the money to schools, parks, libraries
November 1, 2019

Photo courtesy the CivicLab
Tom Tresser, being interviewed by Hard Lens Media, along with Jonathan Peck, announced the CivicLab’s effort to completely eliminate TIFs in Chicago.

By Susan S. Stevens

The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program in Chicago harms the blighted communities it was designed to help and benefits richer neighborhoods, officials of the CivicLab said in announcing a campaign to abolish TIFs.

CivicLab declared that TIFs are, “harmful, unfair, racist, and beyond repair” in a statement and at the organization’s 78th public forum and Future of Chicago lecture, held at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) on Oct. 16. It further declared that “City services have been cut all along” because of property tax money diverted to special accounts designed to improve communities.

After researching the impact of Chicago’s TIF program for six years, the CivicLab launched the TIF Elimination Project and called for distributing the $1.5 billion in TIF funds to schools, parks, libraries, and essential City services. It created an online petition directed at Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago City Council that can be found at https://tinyurl.com/End-TIFs-Now and https://tinyurl.com/End-TIFs-Action-Center.

“TIFs are racist,” preying on African Americans and Hispanics, said the CivicLab’s co-founder and vice president Tom Tresser “TIFs must be abolished. They cannot be fixed. They are a big deal all over the City of Chicago. They suck up property taxes,” with the biggest victim being the public school system with its largely minority student population, which should receive the largest share of property taxes, he said.

Chicago established the first TIFs in 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington. Since then, the number of TIFs has grown to 145, encompassing many affluent areas including the Loop.

Jonathan Peck, CivicLab president and CEO, said the $1.5 billion in TIF accounts could ease significantly the City’s budget deficit of more than $838 million.

‘Massive, corrupt scheme’

“Over the past several years we at the CivicLab have illuminated TIFs and exposed this massive, corrupt scheme cloaked in benign rhetoric of helping marginalized and blighted communities,” Peck said. “We see this program as a strategic and calculated and targeted attack to displace hundreds of thousands of African Americans out of Chicago, all while enriching extremely wealthy developers and the businesses and affluent movers and shakers of this city. A critical result of this has been the public subsidization of the hyper affluent North Side and Loop communities.”

Tresser said, “TIFs are secretive, corrupting, starving public education, showering wealthy developers with hundreds of millions of public dollars, perverting the process of community development, and are fundamentally anti-distributive. And for these reasons we assert that TIFs are racist and must be shut down.”

He added that TIFs are noted for deals done quickly, and “corrupt, with conflicts of interest and bribery,” creating a culture of “how can I get mine? In addition, they hurt genuine attempts at economic development.”

“Billions of dollars have been siphoned off from Black and Brown neighborhoods for downtown,” Peck said, adding that TIFs “starve the schools.”

In a statement, the CivicLab stated that “The plague of TIFs follow in a long line of majority-imposed policies on Black and Brown communities that are designed to keep them down, bleed them, fleece them, and make advancement impossible in America and Chicago.”

The statement also noted, “We make this connection: slavery > Jim Crow > redlining > segregation > disinvestment > urban renewal > contract buying > predatory lending/credit deserts > TIFs/privatization. Chicago’s communities of color bear witness to the harms of these policies—persistent poverty, homicide, unemployment, health outcomes and life expectancy, school closings, militarization of their communities, racial profiling, and lack of affordable housing.”

“I pledge to you that we will continue to speak truth to power and will do everything possible to shut down this racist, unjust slush fund called TIFs,” Peck said, appealing to Chicagoans to “join us in this worthy endeavor, and together we can create a more fair and just city for all of our children, youth, and families.”

The CivicLab’s TIF abolishment logo urges ending the “slush fund.”

Simpson advocates reform

Dick Simpson, a UIC political science professor, former independent alderman, and host of the forum, said he is not calling for abolishing TIFs outright. Rather, he wants TIFs “only in blighted areas—not LaSalle Street,” Simpson said.

“I favor major reform of the TIFs,” Simpson said, and like CivicLab officials, he sees TIF changes as a way to eliminate some of the City’s budget deficit. He predicted the City Council will examine the issue and “will draw off” some TIF money for other purposes.

Some people at the UIC forum, mostly students, signed petitions calling to abolish TIFs.

Favoring Simpson’s view, student Taylor Holmes said, “It is an issue that needs to be addressed,” but she believes the City should restrict TIFs to economic development.

Tresser wrote the book Chicago is Not Broke. Simpson has written several books, including Twenty- First Century Chicago and Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality. Tresser said he would like to put Simpson “out of business” by eliminating the practices Simpson detailed in the latter book.

In her budget address Oct. 23, Lightfoot acknowledged a TIF surplus. From that surplus, schools will get $163 million, with another $31 million going toward the City’s $838 million budget deficit. Where the rest of the TIF surplus money will go has not been revealed. She said she will close five TIFs, but did not disclose which ones.

For more on the CivicLab, log on to www.civiclab.us or call (773) 770-5714. For Simpson, email simpson@uic.edu.