As fate would have it, I sat down to write about inequity in Chicago a few hours after looters poured into the Gold Coast and Loop, busting windows, and, in some cases, clashing with police.
A visibly angry Mayor Lightfoot—joined by police chief David Brown and Alderman Chris Taliaferro—held a hastily convened press conference Monday morning to denounce the looting and demand immediate consequences for those who perpetrated it.
“I don’t care whatever justification was given for this,” Lightfoot said. “There is no justification for criminal behavior, ever.”
So, yes, I realize this might not be an opportune time to talk about the need to address ongoing social injustices. And yet, that’s exactly what I’m about to do.
Coincidentally, the looting occurred just a few days after Cook County clerk Karen Yarbrough released this year’s tax increment financing report, in which she revealed how much the city’s TIF program stands to collect in property taxes and where the city intends to spend most of the money.
The revelation is $926 million—up ten percent from last year—to several wealthy and rapidly gentrifying communities on the north, near west and near south sides.
The TIFs are a surcharge added to the tax bill, ostensibly to fund development in blighted neighborhoods that need it the most.
As such it’s a monumentally important program—a lifeline, you might say— because it’s the largest pool of discretionary income the city has to even out inequities by fairly funding development in communities that desperately need it.
And yet the program perpetuates the inequity it’s supposed to erase.
The moment the city creates a TIF district, all the extra property taxes paid by property owners in that district get funneled into a bank account the mayor can draw down from to pay for everything from new roads and sidewalks to subsidies for private developers.
That would be great if the program were limited only to neighborhoods that desperately need assistance.
But because of loopholes in state law, virtually every neighborhood, no matter how rich, is eligible for TIFs. As a result, rich neighborhoods will always benefit over poor ones in receiving TIF dollars.
There’s no way around this, folks, it’s the nature of the TIF beast.
The key to how much money a TIF district gathers is based on the growth in property taxes. If you allow TIFs to be created in gentrifying areas—like the West Loop or the near north side—they will always generate more money than poorer neighborhoods where property values are stagnant.
That’s a flaw that will exist unless we pool all TIF funds into one economic development pot and equally distribute them throughout the city—as former Alderman Tom Allen once suggested.
As Yarbrough’s report reveals, the biggest winners (as in the communities collecting the most money) are the West Loop, South Loop, Pilsen, and the near north side. As they were last year, and the years before that.
And the biggest losers (that is, getting the least amount of money) are Englewood, Roseland, Austin, and many other struggling south- and west-side communities.
It’s all in Clerk Yarbrough’s report. Read it yourself.
Every time the city creates a new TIF district in an already gentrifying neighborhood—like the ones the council created last year for Lincoln Yards and the 78—it just exacerbates these inequities. Year after year after year.
Obviously, this is not the first time I’ve pointed this out. Probably won’t be the last.
In many ways, I have empathy for Mayor Lightfoot, who’s getting slammed from all sides in the aftermath of Sunday’s looting. In particular, Alderman Brian Hopkins was almost apocalyptic, telling the Tribune . . .
“Literally, the future of Chicago hangs in the balance . . . If this continues, how can Chicago survive? What will be left downtown after Water Tower Place gets boarded up and the for-sale signs go up on all the condos near Michigan Avenue? People who live around there have had their sense of safety badly shaken. This is our tax base, by the way. We count on tax revenue from this area of the city to fund all number of other programs we count on.”
There’s painful irony in Hopkins’s comments.
He was the council’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the creation of the Lincoln Yards TIF deal, which will consume about $1.3 billion in property tax dollars.
That’s a lot of “tax revenue” that could fund “all number of other programs”—like, to cite just one, the police overtime we’ve kept accruing every summer.
But as I said, a lot of people may not want to talk about inequity at this moment in time. It’s funny—back in high school, most of us (maybe even a baby-faced Brian Hopkins) studied Harlem.
That’s the poem where Langston Hughes famously asks: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun . . . Or does it explode?”
But when the explosion occurs, it’s like inequity has nothing to do with it. And it’s—shut up with the TIF talk and bring in the police!
As painful as it is to listen to Hopkins’s rant, it’s going to be even worse when Donald Trump weighs in, as I know he will. He’ll be looking to exploit the situation in order to scare more people into voting for him, even though his massive tax cuts have fostered more inequities than all the crummy TIF deals in Chicago.
I don’t blame Mayor Lightfoot for the unfairness in our TIF program. It began under Mayor Daley and was carried on by Mayor Rahm.
And now the mayors most responsible for these inequities are nowhere to be found as Mayor Lightfoot is held accountable for the consequences. It’s not fair.
Just as it’s not fair to take money intended for poor neighborhoods and spend it on wealthier ones— year after year after year. v