The inequity buster | On Politics | Chicago Reader

The inequity buster 

If Mayor Lightfoot and Sam Skinner want to help the west and south sides, they should look to the TIFs.

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click to enlarge One hundred pages, one teensy mention of TIFs. - CITY OF CHICAGO
  • One hundred pages, one teensy mention of TIFs.
  • City of Chicago

When I heard that Mayor Lightfoot had teamed up with Samuel Skinner—former White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush—to produce a study on how to eliminate inequities in Chicago, I raced to the report to find any references to TIFs.

After all, if you’re going to slice the pie more evenly, making sure that low-income, high-crime south- and west-side Black communities finally—and I mean, at long last!—get treated a little fairly in this town . . .

Well, look no further than the TIF program—which is designed to eradicate blight so that poor communities, like Englewood or Roseland or Austin, get treated like wealthy ones.

I read all 100 pages of the report, Forward Together—Building a Stronger Chicago. I saw page after page of gorgeous pictures of Chicago and Chicagoans. I read flowing prose promising monumental change.

But, alas, there’s only one itty-bitty reference to the tax increment financing program possibly helping fund Black-owned businesses. It’s on page 44, if you want to see it yourself.

Sigh. So much work done—so much more to do.

As you know, I've been pounding on the TIF-is-unfair-to-low-income-communities drum for many years. Looks like I’ll have to keep on pounding for many years to come.

Having read the Lightfoot/Skinner report, I went for a walk—don’t worry, I wore my mask—and contemplated this challenging question . . .

Had Mayor Lightfoot and Skinner willfully ignored mentioning the TIF program in order to keep it in the shadows, leaving the mayor free to spend its funds any way she wanted? As cynically jaded as that sounds.

Or is it a case of innocent ignorance—as if Lightfoot and Skinner, as wise and well-connected as they may be, had never heard of the program?

I looked up Skinner. In addition to being a former White House chief of staff under daddy Bush, he chairs the Government Law and Policy Practice at the Chicago office of Greenberg Traurig, one of the largest corporate law firms in America.

Moreover, Greenberg’s office is located at 77 W. Wacker, in a building that was itself the beneficiary of a TIF handout to United Airlines, which used to be a tenant.

United moved out and returned the TIF handout to the city—a fascinating TIF saga that I wrote about a few years ago.

So, the old jaded and cynical me would say—there’s no way Sam Skinner or Mayor Lightfoot don’t know about the TIF program.

But that’s the old me.

The new me has decided to give up being cynical and jaded.

The new me is pledging to work from the assumption that Skinner—and Lightfoot—just don’t realize the potential of the TIF program to eradicate the inequities that have plagued Chicago since the turn of the last century.

So I’m going to give Mr. Skinner the truth about TIFs in the hopes that when he reads this, he’s going to whip out his cell phone and dial up his mayoral friend to proclaim: “Oh, my God, Lori, you won’t believe this—I just found the solution to Chicago’s inequity problems in an article by some old hippie guy at the Reader!”

OK, Mr. Skinner, follow along . . .

Yes, the TIF program is intended to help the poorest of the poor.

But because of gaping loopholes in the state law, any neighborhood is eligible for a TIF.

And because of the flaws in the TIF program—which I can detail at another time—a gentrifying neighborhood will always have an advantage over a poor one when it comes to generating TIF dollars.

So, the program that’s supposed to help the poorest of the poor mostly helps the richest of the rich.

That’s why, for instance, the Roseland TIF got about $678,000 last year. And the LaSalle/Central TIF—in which 77 W. Wacker is located—got some $101 million.

An inequity that somehow managed not to get mentioned in Forward Together, even as the report talks about how “Chicago must tackle intergenerational poverty that holds our city back” rather than “expecting the benefits of growth to trickle down.”

So, one key to eradicating inequities in Chicago is to figure out a way to channel all of the millions from LaSalle/Central over to Roseland or Austin or Englewood or any poor community. As opposed to hoping that a little of that LaSalle/Central gravy trickles down to the people who really need it.

I’m sure there’s a way to do this. Hell, Greenberg Traurig has about 2,200 attorneys in its firm—according to the website. One of them has to be smart enough to figure this out.

In their report, Mayor Lightfoot and Skinner talk about how the mayor’s Invest South/West program hopes to “align more than $750 million in funding through 2022” for the south and west sides.

But that’s chump change compared to the TIF program, which gathered about $880 million in property taxes last year alone. Think of all the inequities you could erase if you just spent this TIF money a little less, you know, inequitably.

You could pay for health-care workers, mental health center employees, afterschool programs, day care, community policing, and job training. You could hire more social workers, and nurses, and tutors. You could set up computer centers in some of those schools Mayor Rahm closed, staffed by young techies who could help kids trapped at home by the pandemic in apartments that don’t have Internet access.

I mean, just giving away the money to poor people would do more than giving it to rich people, like, just to pick one TIF deal, the developers at Sterling Bay, who got $1.3 billion to build Lincoln Yards, an upscale community in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Well, now that Sam Skinner’s been educated, I’m sure he’s going to be pounding the TIF drum, just like me.

To paraphrase Mayor Lightfoot, it’s never too late to bring in the light on TIFs.  v

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