Introducing: CivicLab and the TIF Illumination Project

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

The CivicLab is a new space for innovation and tool building for civic engagement. We are organizing to open a storefront space in the Logan Square area in mid-2013 where organizers, activists and educators collaborate with technologists and designers to do research, teach civics, and build tools to accelerate community improvement efforts.

Our first project is a long-term investigation of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Program on a ward-by-ward basis. TIFs are special districts that a city can set up that extract property taxes from all the properties in that district over a 23-year time period. These districts are established to fund economic development projects, ostensibly in blighted or disinvested neighborhoods or those lacking enough incentive for developers to make a project happen without subsidies.

In 2011 Chicago’s 163 TIF districts covered 30% of the city and extracted $454 million in property taxes. additional pot of property taxes, an equal to 52% of the $880 million total it collected in 2011 for city operations. The $454 million is a sort of “off the books” budget that is very hard to track and evaluate.

According to our research, the city had a staggering $1.39 billion in property taxes sitting in all the TIF accounts at the end of 2011. How can Chicago be broke if all that property tax money is sitting in bank accounts somewhere?

An additional 280 TIF districts in suburban Cook County extracted an additional $275 million in property taxes in 2011, meaning that in 2011 Cook County had a total of 443 TIF districts lifting an astounding $729 million in property taxes into their coffers. Across Illinois there are some 1,220 TIF districts spread amongst 455 municipalities. According to the State Treasurer’s Office, they extracted a grand total of $1.15 BILLION in 2010. There is no single place to go to find out what happened to all that money.

We have started our investigation with the 27th Ward, which has 12 TIFs running through it. We will be using a web site, maps, fliers, community meetings, town forums and other creative methods to explain our findings and engage folks in a conversation about local priorities. Our insert in this issue of AREA is part of this process.

If you’d like to become part of this work, please contact us at, or visit us online at or http://www.tifreports. com or follow us at @civiclabchicago. You can also sign our petition demanding that TIF impacts be placed on property tax bills at ◊


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