A map of the Madison-Austin TIF. AustinTalks.

Crain’s columnist Greg Hinz and some others show they are tone-deaf on the issue of shutting down the city’s seven downtown TIFs.

First and foremost, it must be noted that there is indeed a legitimate value to TIF districts, so arguments to end all TIFs (a push that’s been made, intermittently, over the last year) do not take into account that TIF programs exist around the country and do indeed serve a key role in the suite of economic development tools for municipalities.

The key issues with TIFs in Chicago have been the lack of oversight, lack of accountability and the inequitable development that flies in the face of why TIFs were created in the first place. Hinz misses the point that much of the criticism for TIF districts is rooted in that residents have seen how vital they are to downtown development, but have not seen a similar level of utilization for development outside of the Central Business District.

(Although many non-downtown projects may indeed utilize TIF funds, the fact remains that development outside of the Central Business District has remained sluggish, with neighborhoods, particularly on the West and South Sides, lacking for decades).

So as Hinz makes his impassioned plea for new residential units built downtown and the need for parks for those new residents in the “New Loop”, he completely fails to understand that people already living in the neighborhoods outside of downtown are seeking some of the tangible benefits of TIF dollars in their own locales.

One thing he gets correct is that this process of development takes planning — not impulse; however, it also requires intentionality. The outgoing Director of the Dept. of Planning & Economic Development essentially adopted the same “trickle down” philosophy that’s proven ineffective — whether in national policy or local policy.

His assertion that the Central Business District is the driver for the city’s economy is correct; however, the lack of intentionality in focusing intense development in areas outside of the Central Business District (some of this under his watch) is what, in part, led to the decline in population by roughly 200,000 residents over the past ten years; the dearth of small businesses and sustainable neighborhood economies in many parts of the city; the stark inequity in quality of life depending on neighborhood area; and the sense of dissatisfaction and ire toward a fund that was created for blighted areas but that has been maximized by the most affluent area of the city (and also mired in clout-driven scandal).

Devoting additional funds from the TIFs to Chicago Public Schools and other government entities mired in fiscal crisis is a small step that seeks to redistribute a shrinking pie. If the administration wants to fundamentally reshape our city’s fiscal health, it requires creating a growth economy that enlarges the pie.

This means a fundamentally different approach to development that prioritizes equity as a matter of policy in how development takes place across the city of Chicago. The ‘Tale of Two Cities’ narrative took hold in the last mayoral election largely because of the visible inequity as shown by the lack of development outside of the Central Business District.

If this is one Chicago, then we must focus resources and development to those areas that have been ignored. That takes it beyond simply sun-setting downtown TIFs. It requires a reshaping of the City of Chicago’s development policy via a lens of transparency, efficiency and, most importantly, equity.

Amara Enyia Jd, PhD is a public policy consultant and community organizer.

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