#959: I Am Chicago’s Newest TIF District

July 27th, 2018

TIF districts, that bugaboo of municipal financing that leeches billions from our tax revenues, are in the news again.

I’ve written about TIF districts before, and my Chicago Corruption Walking Tour takes people to the Bloomingdale’s downtown to show how this program meant for blighted, impoverished areas gets turned into mayoral pet projects for the wealthy. Cook County Clerk David Orr recently unveiled his latest TIF report, showing that now one-third of city property tax revenue is poured into these discretionary slush funds.

One in four properties in Chicago is in a TIF district, declared by the city to be so blighted special measures are needed.

How easy is it to get declared TIF-eligible? According to a 2016 Iowa Law Review article “Is Tax Increment Financing Racist? Chicago’s Racially Disparate TIF Spending,” city employees tasked by Chicago City Hall with reviewing whether an area qualifies for a TIF district have never turned in an answer other than yes. Never. Not for the six TIF districts Harold Washington wanted looked at, the one Eugene Sawyer approved, the 163 in place by the time Richard M. Daley left office or the current 143 fewer-but-larger TIF districts under Rahm Emanuel.

There are standards of course, both to be determined “blighted” and eligible for TIF or a “conservation area” that’s not blighted but still eligible for TIF. The reviewers have 13 conditions to review. If they find five, an area is blighted. They only need three for a conservation area, but the TIF will be just as TIF-y. Conditions they look for include structures older than 35 years, an area constructed without a community plan and conditions of dilapidation or deterioration.

Over 35, no real plan, showing signs of age and wear? I could be a TIF district, I joked.

So I decided to see if I could, reviewing the 13 conditions city reviewers have to check through before they can report back to the mayor that any area in Chicago is A-OK, 100-percent TIF-worthy.

1. Dilapidation ✔

“An advanced state of disrepair or neglect of necessary repairs to the primary structural components of buildings…”

Short answer, “Yes.” Long answer, “I was beautiful once, but Chicago has a wide and varied array of Mexican and Italian dining options.”

2. Obsolescence ✔

“The condition or process of falling into disuse. Structures have become ill-suited for the original use.”

When I was a child, I ran everywhere. I ran and climbed — I was the fastest kid in the neighborhood. I was going to be a scientist too. I was going to study dinosaurs and never, ever work in an office.

3. Deterioration ✔

“[D]efects … including, but not limited to, surface cracking, crumbling, potholes, depressions, loose paving material, and weeds protruding through paved surfaces.”

First, how many ways does this law need to say “run down”? Like one slightly aging place instantly qualifies for three basically synonymous and completely subjective factors. That’s already enough to qualify for a TIF under “conservation area” status and we’re 3/5 of the way to “blighted.” If that’s not stacking the deck, what is?

Second, yes this applies to me. We’ve all had troubles with depression now and again and you leave my protruding weeds out of this.

4. Presence of structures below minimum code standards

“All structures that do not meet the standards of zoning, subdivision, building, fire, and other government codes…”

Until they make the Presidential Physical Fitness Test from grade school legally binding, I’m in the clear on this one. A big no for TIF qualification here.

5. Illegal use of individual structures ✔

“The use of structures in violation of applicable federal, State, or local laws…”

Look, man. We all smoked some stuff in college we’re not exactly proud of. And maybe I have a lead foot when driving or didn’t notify the Secretary of State’s Office within the 10 days of moving required by Illinois Vehicle Code, Sec. 3-416, 6-116 and 6-511 and I stabbed all those hitchhikers and, sure, who hasn’t spat in an alley or two? No one’s perfect.

6. Excessive vacancies

“The presence of buildings that are unoccupied or under-utilized and that represent an adverse influence on the area…”

No. I haven’t felt like a soulless, empty husk who’s a bad influence on others in like three years.

7. Lack of ventilation, light, or sanitary facilities

“The absence of adequate ventilation for light or air circulation in spaces or rooms without windows, or that require the removal of dust, odor, gas, smoke, or other noxious airborne materials.”

I’m lactose intolerant and Mexican food, as mentioned, is delicious. If anything the problem is too much ventilation of noxious airborne materials.

[Editor's note: I would like to apologize for the previous joke. It was noxious, offensive and unsuitable for the surrounding area. We will do better.]

8. Inadequate utilities ✔

“Inadequate utilities are those that are: (i) of insufficient capacity to serve the uses in the redevelopment project area, (ii) deteriorated, antiquated, obsolete, or in disrepair, or (iii) lacking within the redevelopment project area.”

I am a professional journalist in 2018. My utility is inadequate, obsolete and lacking in my community.

As of this point, I qualify for a TIF district. I have hit five factors, none of which you’ll notice have any relationship to actually being economically blighted. But for funsies, let’s run through the rest.

9. Excessive land coverage and overcrowding of structures and community facilities ✔

“The over-intensive use of property and the crowding of buildings and accessory facilities onto a site.”

Like all men nearing 40, I have a closetful of pants I’ll someday wear again.

10. Deleterious land use or layout ✔

“The existence of incompatible land-use relationships, buildings occupied by inappropriate mixed-uses, or uses considered to be noxious, offensive, or unsuitable for the surrounding area.”

See factor 7.

11. Environmental clean-up

“The proposed redevelopment project area has incurred Illinois Environmental Protection Agency or United States Environmental Protection Agency remediation costs for, or a study conducted by an independent consultant recognized as having expertise in environmental remediation has determined a need for, the clean-up of hazardous waste, hazardous substances, or underground storage tanks required by State or federal law, provided that the remediation costs constitute a material impediment to the development or redevelopment of the redevelopment project area.”

Does not apply. The IEPA remediation costs relating to the clean-up of my hazardous substances has not been determined to constitute a material impediment to my development or redevelopment.

12. Lack of community planning

“The proposed redevelopment project area was developed prior to or without the benefit or guidance of a community plan.”

I have no plan (see also: still a journalist in 2018) but I’m pretty sure my parents knew what they were doing. But on a less jokey note, consider how much of Chicago was built before community plans were the thing. Every beloved old two-flat. Every gothic arch lining the downtown riverway. Every Art Deco office block or every corner bodega. Look at every lovely, loved structure in town and think about how that maintained Lincoln Park estate or manicured townhome qualifies an area as blighted. Scary, eh?

13. The total equalized assessed value of the proposed redevelopment project area has declined for 3 of the last 5 calendar years prior to the year in which the redevelopment project area is designated or is increasing at an annual rate that is less than the balance of the municipality for 3 of the last 5 calendar years for which information is available or is increasing at an annual rate that is less than the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers published by the United States Department of Labor or successor agency for 3 of the last 5 calendar years prior to the year in which the redevelopment project area is designated

No, this doesn’t apply to me. But this condition — the only condition that actually proves an area is economically blighted — isn’t even needed to prove economic blight. All you need is five of the 13 and you’re blighted — even if three of them are the synonyms for “aging.”

I don’t think TIF is a terrible program. It’s been used for some undeniably good projects, like $31 million to modernize Mount Sinai Hospital, $12 million to rebuild the Englewood Mall, $27.5 million for a new Green Line ‘L’ stop at Cermak, $10 million to rebuild the Harrison subway station, $29.3 million to expand Payton and Jones college prep high schools, and $15.6 million for a new Chinatown library.

But when the standards are so low that this funding mechanism can also be approved for $25.9 million to help United Airlines renovate office and lobby space in Sears Tower, $329,000 for artwork at Harold Washington College, $1 million to
turn the bottom three floors of the Gene Siskel Film Center into a performance space, $42.4 million for a never-to-be-opened underground CTA superstation underneath the Block 37 mall downtown and me, maybe it’s time to get our lawmakers to tighten the standards rather than rage over the fact a third of our tax money goes here.

For more in ridiculous methods of teaching civics:

Campaign finance poetry

Dr. Seuss covers the governor race

Take the “Amoeba or Gerrymandered Chicago Ward” quiz!

An ode to Rahm Emanuel’s missing finger

Take the Chicago Corruption Walking Tour (this weekend is the last one so BUY TICKETS)

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