Property taxpayers in Englewood were furious upon learning at a town hall meeting Saturday that their tax dollars had contributed at least $44 million to the Englewood Neighborhood Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District since it rolled out in 2001. According to data from the CivicLab's TIF Illumination Project, some $44 million of taxpayer dollars had funneled to the TIF district between 2001 and 2011.
In 2011 alone, the TIF district siphoned $5 million from property taxpayers in the area, which would have normally gone to local units of government such as schools and parks, according to the CivicLab.
“The original concept is that (TIFs are) designed to have an impact on blighted areas, and just looking out the window, we know that a blighted area is all around us,” CivicLab's Bill Drew said at the TIF discussion, held at the Chicago Public Library's Hiram Kelly Branch.
Members of the volunteer-based TIF Illumination Project are traveling across the city in order to promote TIF transparency at the ward level.
There are 163 TIF districts across Chicago and an additional 280 in suburban Cook County.
The city’s TIF program, started by former Chicago mayor Harold Washington but greatly expanded under Richard M. Daley’s administration, is meant to spur economic development and create jobs in neighborhoods that need it most. This is supposed to be done by awarding TIF subsidies to developers planning projects within a district.
But Drew said the program has been “hijacked”, because millions of TIF dollars have been funneled to private companies for developments in the Loop and other thriving parts of the city.
“Just as a lot of other progressive things that are won as a result of people struggling, people who have power have connived and figured out ways to turn [TIFs] to their own advantage,” Drew said.
A total of $454 million was extracted from Chicago’s property taxes and deposited into the TIF program in 2011.
“The legend that, well, we can’t afford this, and we can’t afford that because we’re broke, well what about that $454 million sitting in these TIF piggybanks all over the city,” Drew asked. “That’s a counter argument to the justification [of], well, we can’t afford to have good schools, and we can’t afford to have good parks because we’re broke.”
A little more than $24 million was left sitting in the bank account of the Englewood Neighborhood TIF district at the end of 2011, according to the CivicLab’s analysis.
And that news didn’t sit well with some of the residents.
“We need an attorney,” said Etta Davis, a 50-year Englewood resident. “We know we are being had. We’re being messed over. We are being stolen from.”
Some Englewood homeowners who live in the district did receive some TIF money as part of the Neighborhood Improvement Program to make repairs to their homes, according to the CivicLab’s analysis.
But overall, TIF money was spent on little, if any, commercial developments within the district since its creation, the CivicLab found.
People who live within a TIF district receive misleading property tax bills, Drew said. The bills show zero dollars went to the district, he said.
“But in fact, if you live in the TIF, 68 percent is what is going into the TIF, and only 32 percent is going to the normal taxing bodies,” Drew explained.
The CivicLab started an online petition to be delivered to the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn calling for all property taxes collected by TIF districts to be clearly labeled on tax bills.
Aysha Butler, with the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E), said the TIF town hall meeting helped scratch the surface on how the program is, or isn’t, working in Englewood. Now, she said, residents need to lead the effort to fight back against the TIF program.
“It just gives us some more information that we need to know to mobilize, to start having some real conversations about looking at every line by line and really holding our aldermen accountable or the city accountable for what’s really happening,” she said.
At least one resident at the meeting put the blame for the lack of TIF developments in Englewood on the local aldermen. But others explained that Chicago’s aldermen typically know little about how the program actually works.
“I can’t speak for all the aldermen, but I’m speaking for myself, and we don’t know a lot about TIFs,” said Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) who represents parts of Englewood.
She said Saturday’s CivicLab presentation was the fourth community meeting she’s been to regarding TIFs. Foulkes noted that some of the people in the room probably had more TIF knowledge than their alderman.
“The reason that I come is to get educated and to learn about this because they don’t teach us this,” she said.
Resident Jean-Paul Thomas said the reason why the residents of Englewood are not getting the development they deserve is because they don’t know the rules.
“When you know the rules, then you can get what you want,” he said. “We don’t bother to learn the rules. We don’t bother to follow the rules. The information is online ... but you have to go out there and read.”
He added that finding information on TIFs is no “walk in the park".
“We don’t have people who have the time,” Thomas said. “On one side of the table you got us volunteers, no money, no tools, no knowledge. On the other side of the table [are] full-time staffers, paid full-time [with] all the tools, all the knowledge. So how is this an even fight?”
Englewood residents say they plan to discuss more ways to educate themselves about and mobilize the community on the issue of TIFs at the next R.A.G.E. village meeting, scheduled for May 21 at 6:30 p.m., Canaan Community Church, 1701 W. Garfield Blvd.