Never Say Die

Opponents of the Pilsen TIF score an upset.

By Linda Lutton

The legal description of Pilsen’s tax increment financing district isn’t exactly pleasure reading: “Beginning at the point of intersection of the southwesterly extension of the southeasterly line of W. Bross Avenue and the west line of the west half of the northwest quarter of Section 31, Township 39 North, Range 14 east of the third principal meridian…” And so on and so on, for pages.

But for activist attorney Marlene Kamish and the eight Pilsen plaintiffs she represents in Cortez v. City of Chicago, diligent reading has paid off. Just as the city was preparing to put the Pilsen TIF into motion at last, Kamish made one final attempt to stop it and came away with an important victory.

Kamish and crew are about all that’s left of the organized opposition. Two years ago, when the city proposed that Pilsen’s industrial and commercial sections be declared a tax increment financing district to fund development in the area, residents leveled a barrage of questions and accusations at City Hall, charging that the TIF was just another guise for gentrification and community displacement. Hundreds showed up for the required public hearing. They grilled Department of Planning and Development officials on the potential effects of the TIF. They booed and shouted when the city’s Community Development Commission voted unanimously to approve it. And then they disappeared. Except for Kamish and her plaintiffs–the self-dubbed “Pilsen Eight.”

For about a year the Pilsen Eight have been quietly showing up for a circuit court case arguing that the city violated due process in implementing Pilsen’s TIF. Kamish (one of the attorneys who helped acquit Manuel Salazar in the 1984 killing of a Joliet policeman) argued that the city’s public hearing was invalid because people weren’t really allowed to speak–commissioners cut off some speakers after just 30 seconds, and those who spoke Spanish weren’t translated. Cook County Circuit Court judge Lester Foreman agreed and prevented the city from implementing the TIF until valid hearings were held. The city rescheduled hearings but failed to comply with notification requirements, and Foreman ordered it to try again. Finally the city got it right, Foreman dismissed the case in July, and the wheels of the Pilsen TIF began turning once again.

That’s when Kamish started reading legal descriptions.

One of the biggest fears of Pilsen residents who opposed the TIF was how it might interact with a southward expansion planned by the University of Illinois at Chicago. UIC was pushing for its own TIF to fund the expansion, which would include $400,000 homes (the sale of which would fund university buildings) and loft-style dormitories located just one block from working-class Pilsen’s northern border. Many families relocated to Pilsen in the 60s after the first Mayor Daley drove them out of the Taylor Street neighborhood to make room for the university; the notion that tax dollars from Pilsen’s TIF might flow to UIC–a transfer that’s allowed only if two TIFs are adjacent–is enough to make them cringe. “Whether Pilsen funds will be used for UIC has just been a major sore issue, because people don’t want to be funding their own displacement,” says Kamish. “They know they were displaced before by UIC.”

For two years planning department officials denied any linkage between the Pilsen TIF–for the most part an industrial initiative–and the UIC TIF, which was eventually approved as the “Roosevelt-Union TIF.” The city asserted in every hearing that the two TIFs weren’t adjacent and therefore no funds would flow from one area to the other. “On behalf of the department and board of commissioners, I would like to clarify that the proposed UIC TIF…at no point joins or is adjacent to the Pilsen TIF,” said Michael Jasso, the planning department official heading up the Pilsen TIF project, at one of the hearings. “Without adjacency, there cannot be sharing of funds. There is neither an intention of the department nor any plan that the two TIFs would have adjacency.”

“How far are they apart?” asked one Pilsen resident.

“They’re two blocks apart,” said Jasso. “Which is equivalent to 2,000 miles….They need to be physically adjacent.”

Kamish didn’t take his word for it. “My plaintiffs went down to City Hall and got copies of what they call 80-acre sheet maps,” she says. “An 80-acre sheet map is a big map that the city has that shows all the different blocks in great detail. They’re the maps that you can [use to] follow the legal description. So we got the maps, and the boundary, ‘the southerly boundary of Block 28,’–that’s the southerly boundary of the Roosevelt-Union TIF–is 16th Street. The northerly boundary of the Pilsen TIF is 16th Street. And it’s as clear as can be once you follow it on those maps. There just ain’t no arguing. The two TIFs are adjacent.” The TIFs touch along just one block, between Peoria and Sangamon. “That little boundary allows 23 years of funds–a whole generation–to move between the two TIFs.”

Kamish went to a land surveyor to confirm what she’d found and immediately filed a motion for the judge to reconsider. “In their motion to dismiss [our case] they have three pages of very, very clear, strong statements saying that Jasso told the truth, that Jasso represented accurately to the Community Development Commission, that the two TIFs were not adjacent and contiguous, and that there’d be no sharing of funds between them. And they submitted a map made by the Department of Planning and Development showing–and I don’t know how they made it; I guess they made it up on their computers–showing a nice fat space between the TIFs. And they gave it to the court, and the court dismissed the case.”

According to the city, that shared block along 16th Street was an error. “The mistake that was made was made by the surveyor,” says Jennifer Hoyle, public information officer for the city’s Law Department. “The city didn’t intend for the two TIFs to be together, and never intended that money be moved between the two TIFs. It was a mistake on the part of the surveyor, and he has signed an affidavit to that effect, that he deviated from the instructions we gave him. So when we gave people that information we were acting in good faith. We didn’t know that there had been an error.”

That’s a little hard for Kamish to swallow. “You don’t make a mistake when it’s the most burning issue in the community,” she says. “The UIC issue is something everyone understands, and the city knew that. It’s very hard for the average citizen to understand tax increment financing. But they do understand a wrecking ball. And they understand that UIC has changed the entire face of the landscape.”

The legal war to halt the Pilsen TIF is probably lost, but on Monday, Kamish and the Pilsen Eight won a significant battle. “The City of Chicago is permanently enjoined from using any and all funds from the Pilsen TIF for the Roosevelt-Union TIF or any other TIF,” ordered Judge Foreman. He added that he wasn’t going to assume any dishonesty on the part of the city but he wanted to do what was most expedient and wouldn’t call for the hearings to be repeated yet again.

“When you see someone’s hand in the till and you ask them, ‘What are you doing?’ they’ll say, ‘I’m just straightening out the money,'” says Thomas Casimer Mendrala, one of the eight plaintiffs and a Pilsen resident since 1969. “How can you prove that the city was intending the opposite of what they are now claiming?” Still, he calls the permanent injunction a “smashing victory. Pilsen is going to be an island in the middle of Chicago. All the other TIF funds are going to be portable, but there’s an iron fence around Pilsen’s money, which is very nice.”

Kamish says the city’s representatives “did not look happy. They were not expecting it.” She’s convinced that sooner or later the city would have dipped into Pilsen TIF monies to fund the UIC expansion. “Since most of that property in the University of Illinois area is tax-exempt, they were expecting to take the funds from Pilsen and expand and displace the Pilsen community. I was asking for the ordinances to be invalidated, but on this narrow issue I do think that this was a very important ruling.”

Kamish says she’s uncovered more inconsistencies in the legal description for UIC’s TIF, gaps in the borderline that she hopes will get her another case. “I do think that the Roosevelt-Union TIF is invalid, because the boundaries are not continuous–even the city admitted that today. So I think there’s some reason for optimism that that TIF could be invalidated, and that should set the city back significantly on their heels.” She’s relying on the letter of the law, but the spirit behind TIFs is her real target. “I am totally, unequivocally, and forever opposed to tax increment financing. I think that it takes from people and supports their displacement and gives money to private developers for private interests, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the public good. The public is the people who are being hurt here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.