Lightfoot opts to tame TIFs, not abolish them

Mayoral emphasis is on sending the money to needy parts of the South and West sides.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot, with Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett and Budget Director Susie Park, at the Sun-Times editorial board Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

There was a lot going on in town last week — a teachers’ strike, a city budget, a new Cubs manager — so you may have missed this: Mayor Lori Lightfoot put her own stamp on efforts to revitalize neighborhoods.

She’s directing $250 million in city money toward improvement of commercial blocks in 10 neighborhoods on the South and West sides that need investment. Called Invest South/West, her program is designed to draw in nonprofits and corporate money, and it got a push forward with a $10 million commitment from BMO Harris Bank.

Lightfoot will concentrate city planning initiatives on improvements having a high impact on blocks with pedestrian and retail activity, transit connections and public space. By concentrating on quality of life, the program is supposed to bring a sense of better days ahead to areas in need.

Analysis bug

Analysis

And it’s brought to you in large measure by Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, which in public discourse emerges from its crypt every so often to shrieks and howls.

It’s that very same TIF program that has been accused of starving local governments of cash, perpetuating racism, rewarding the 1% and harboring a slush fund.

That last part is absolutely true. The difference now is we have a mayor who admits it.

TIFs are a common development tool across the country and have been used here since the time of Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s. When federal help for cities declined, Mayor Richard M. Daley seized on TIFs as a ready homegrown tool to encourage growth, and he liked their lack of accountability. Rahm Emanuel as mayor reformed some TIF operations but as a lame duck ordered $2.4 billion in future TIF subsidies for two megaprojects, giving Chicagoans a stiff-arm on his way back to investment banking.

In their original form, TIFs were supposed to combat blight. But they’ve been so misused as to become easy targets.

The Chicago Teachers Union has employed the TIF for Lincoln Yards a lot lately to play to the crowd. Its leaders make it sound like the money is in a vault somewhere. “The $1.3 billion luxury real-estate project known as Lincoln Yards could fund our entire contract,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.

It’s not in a vault, nor anywhere else. TIFs create money over time from growth in property values and new development. The money is supposed to subsidize private development or public works.

There’s nothing in the Lincoln Yards TIF because it just started. If you took it away, it is arguable that whatever development occurs in that North Side district will be more modest, if anything occurs. It’s an incentive, after all.

In a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board Wednesday, Lightfoot said she wants TIFs to be more modest and focused, with her South and West side program a template. “We have to have an intelligent plan on how to use TIF dollars and not just have a series of one-offs like we’ve been using in recent years,” she said.

“There’s not a pot of a billion dollars sitting out there as some people have suggested,” Lightfoot said. “The developer has to prove that they are making good on the promises that they made in the redevelopment agreement.”

What really is “out there” is about $1 billion collectively in the 144 TIF districts active in Chicago, mayoral aides said. They promised an exact number but couldn’t provide it last week. Most of the money is committed to future projects, many benefiting schools, the CTA and other public agencies.

Of that amount, her administration has identified $348.8 million as legitimate surplus. Lightfoot is grabbing $300 million of that and, in accordance with the law, is passing it around to the taxing bodies by their relative shares. The city’s take comes to $74.1 million. The schools get $163 million.

Lightfoot said she will act aggressively to identify and return TIF surpluses, while directing the funds into the neighborhoods. As she said in one of the applause lines of her budget address, “The days of the TIF slush fund are over.”

But she said she has no intention of reneging on the TIF promises made to Lincoln Yards or to developers of the mixed-use project called the 78 at Roosevelt and Clark, which could get $1.1 billion.

What’s the message to those developers? She said, “Enjoy it ‘cause you’ll never see a deal like these before and we’re going to make sure we are very, very rigorous in holding them accountable for getting the work done. I think the pace needs to be picked up.”

Let’s see if it works to not slay the TIF beast. Tame it, and make it serve the common good.

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