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People’s City Council: community perspectives on fiscal crisis

Fifteen hundred community activists from neighborhoods across the city will gather tomorrow evening for a People’s City Council to make sure that the needs of Chicago residents – jobs, housing, education, services and safety – aren’t sacrificed for an agenda driven by corporate greed.

Twenty or more aldermen are expected to attend.

Sponsored by the Grassroots Collaborative and twenty community, labor, and civic groups, the event takes place at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, July 7 at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt.

“With all the talk about ‘shared sacrifice,’ we want to make sure that it’s not just community residents sacrificing in terms of service cuts and job losses and their ripple effects,” said Eric Tellez of Grassroots Collaborative.  “We want to make sure the banks and corporations are sharing in the sacrifices and not taking more resources than they need.”

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Time for TIF reform?

Chicago teachers and community groups will call for an end to big business TIF giveaways which are draining the CPS budget at a rally tomorrow (Saturday, March 19, noon) at Jenner Elementary, 1119 N. Cleveland.

After the rally they’ll march to a number of businesses around the Gold Coast that have received TIF funding, said Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union.  TIF funds (including subsidies to developers) have benefited such corporations as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he said.

The TIF program diverts about $250 million a year from the CPS budget to “wealthy developers, well-connected businesses, and Wall Street bankers,” while 160 CPS schools have no library, teachers are being laid off, education programs are cut and class sizes are growing, he said. CPS is projecting a $700 million deficit for the coming year.

The protest’s slogan is “TIFs Are For Kids.”  It comes at a time when TIF reform seems to be under serious consideration in Springfield, and a new mayor-elect is saying he wants reform too.

It’s not yet clear what Rahm Emanuel means by “reform.”  He began his campaign calling for greater transparency on TIFs – for one thing, including them in the city budget – and also for skimming TIF funds to hire more police, a move many think is probably not legally feasible.

Since winning election Emanuel has said “we need to return [the TIF program] to its original purpose,” as “a tool for blighted communities” rather than “for high-rent areas.”

Corporate welfare

That echoes the long-standing criticism of community groups, who say TIF has diverted property tax revenues to politically-favored areas and businesses that don’t need it, and that open-ended rather than project-specific TIF plans have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars for Mayor Daley to use for his friends, at his whim.

Building on years of coverage at the Chicago Reader, recent reports have confirmed this view.  According to reporters from Chicago Talks, nearly half of the $1.2 billion in TIF money designated for private sector projects since 2000 went to some of the area’s most profitable corporations.

According to the Chicago Reporter, $1.2 billion in property tax dollars were siphoned from the city, county, schools, and parks to the development projects in the Loop and Near South Side – just two of Chicago’s 77 community areas getting 55 percent of all TIF money spent between 2004 and 2008.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that they have been abusing it,” said Carolina Gaete of Blocks Together.  “They’re starving the taxing bodies.  TIF has really been used as corporate welfare — and a tool for gentrification.”

If Emanuel is serious about returning TIF to its original purpose, the first thing he should do is sunset the LaSalle Central TIF, said one long-time observer.

Created in 2006, the LaSalle Central TIF has funneled millions of dollars to major corporations – United Airlines, Miller Coors, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group among others – in many cases to renovate corporate offices.

The LaSalle Central TIF has over $36 million in available funds this year.  It’s expected to collect $1.5 billion over its 23-year life – about half of which will come from property tax that would otherwise go to CPS – for use in an area that comprises some of the city’s most prime real estate.

“There should never have been a TIF in that area,” said David Merriman of UIC.

Movement in Springfield

Meanwhile, a number of measures reforming TIF have been introduced in Springfield, including proposals to return uncommitted TIF funds to taxing bodies annually, exempt CPS revenues from TIF diversions, and require audits of Chicago TIFs and stepped-up disclosure (Progress Illinois has a list).

These are likely to be combined with other proposals into a single consensus bill by a group of legislators and advocates convened by Rep. John Taylor (D – Marion).  And prospects for passage this session look good, said Jonathan Goldman of Parent PAC, a new group that advocates for public school parents, which includes veterans of campaigns against the diversion of school funds to TIFs.

Growing momentum for reform reflects growing popular awareness about TIFs — as well as the mounting financial challenges faced by CPS and Chicago, Goldman said.  “And part of it is that Daley is leaving; he won’t be there to defend it,” he said.  Previously “people were afraid to go there.”

Housing Action Illinois, which helped push through earlier TIF reforms a decade ago, has compiled a list of TIF reform principles and submitted it to Bradley’s working group, Bob Palmer said.

These include: tightening up the definition of “blight” used to qualify TIF plans; limiting the land area in a municipality that can be TIFed; requiring explicit goals and purposes, with a process for returning revenues to taxing bodies when goals are met; requiring governing boards of taxing bodies to approve participation in a TIF, allowing them to limit their participation, and limiting TIF diversions to property value increases above the rate of inflation; and setting a process for declaring a surplus and returning unused revenues to schools districts and other taxing bodies.

Similar points are made in a memo to the working group from the Better Government Association.

Another proposal backed by Housing Action, designed to facilitate the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, would allow TIF funding to cover 100 percent of the cost of construction of low-income housing.

More sunshine

In Chicago, reform could mean fuller implementation of the TIF Sunshine Ordinance approved in 2009.  Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), coauthor of the measure, described his disappointment with its implementation to Chicago Talks – including the city’s claim that documents that should have been posted couldn’t be located.

Community activists monitoring neighborhood TIFs say it’s still hard to get information.  Gaete, who works with the Chicago Central Park TIF advisory council, says it’s not clear how officials come up with financial projections and other numbers.

Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance, who holds an annual town hall meeting reporting on seven TIFs around North Lawndale, said its impossible to learn how many community residents have gotten jobs or what minority contracts have been awarded.

Special programs which are supposed to provide TIF support for residents – including home improvements, small business support and job training – use TIF money but aren’t listed in TIF budgets, making them impossible to track, she said.

A sudden demolition

After a West Side activist group announced plans to take over and board up a building abandoned following foreclosure, the city moved within hours to have the building demolished, said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.

“They got wind of what we were going to do and decided to preempt our action,” Redmond said.

SAC still plans to hold an action tomorrow at the site, now a pile of rubble – pointing out that there are eleven more abandoned, bank-owned properties on the same block (Friday, January 28, 11 a.m., 4924 W. Gladys).

“Tearing this building down is not the answer,” Redmond said.  “The city should be working with the community and banks to ensure homes are rehabbed and families are moved in.”

The building made TV last week when mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle joined SAC in a press conference there.

The home was fully habitable, Redmond said, and fell into extreme disrepair only after it was foreclosed on – which was nearly three years ago. Progress Illinois recently described it as an “absolute wreck,” with a back door flapping open, broken windows, metal and wiring stripped, and debris including liquor bottles and plastic baggies indicating a haven for drug use (see PI’s photos at Flickr).

PI also traced the tortuous trail of ownership of the building’s mortgage, from First Franklin to Merrill Lynch to Bank of America to an outfit in Florida.

The other abandoned homes on the block are “good solid structures and they can be saved,” Redmond said.  “The problem is if they’re just going to tear these buildings down and create empty lots, that’s not beneficial to the community” — especially “large numbers of people who can’t find housing.”

Loan servicers walking away

A recent report by the Woodstock Institute found the foreclosure crisis has left thousands of vacant homes that are poorly maintained, lack clear ownership, and threaten neighborhood stability.  Loan servicers “may choose to reduce the costs associated with a long-term vacant home by walking away from the foreclosure process instead of completing it or may avoid maintaining a vacant home,” according to the report.

Examining city data, Woodstock identified thousands of homes where foreclosure has been filed but not concluded – raising concerns that servicers have abandoned the process – or where it’s likely lenders have taken possession but not registered as required.

Woodstock estimated that the abandoned homes could cost the city as much as $36 million for legal, security, police, and demolition expenses.

Update languishes

But a proposal to update the city’s vacant properties ordinance to deal with the crisis has languished in the City Council, said Braden Listmann of Action Now.

The current ordinance requires registration and board-up but applies to the owner of the property, leaving a large gap during a drawn-out foreclosure process, Listmann said.  And fines and fees can be difficult to collect, he added.

An ordinance introduced by Ald. Pat Dowell at the request of Action Now and other groups would hold a servicer or lender who files foreclosure responsible for registering, securing the building, and posting a $10,000 bond which could be tapped for fines and fees.

To aid enforcement, it would also provide a 5 percent finders fee on any fines for residents who report an abandoned property and do the research to determine its owner.

The ordinance was introduced in July and remains stalled in the council’s housing committee.

Also stalled is the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would tap TIF funds to rehab foreclosed properties as affordable housing.

“These are two measures that would help the foreclosure crisis, and the City Council needs to move on them,” Listmann said.  “They would help the city, the state, our communities, the economy – they would make sure buildings aren’t falling apart and provide money to reoccupy them.”

TIF for housing: Aldermen backpedal

Housing advocates will stage protests Monday at the offices of four aldermen who “reneged” on support for an ordinance that would dedicate TIF funds for affordable housing.

The Sweet Home Chicago Coalition will protest outside the office of Ald. Michele Harris (8th Ward), 8539 S. Cottage, at 10 a.m. on Monday, December 6.

That will be followed by protests at the offices of Leslie Hairston (5th), 2325 E. 71st, at 11:15 a.m.; Lona Lane (18th), 8146 S. Kedzie, at 12:15 p.m.; and John Rice [36th], 6839 W. Belmont, at 2 p.m.

The coalition also plans leafleting, phone-banking and door-to-door education campaigns – along with signs on foreclosed properties – said spokesperson Mike Truppa.

Each alderman faces several opponents in next February’s election – and each serves in a ward with “prolific foreclosure rates,” Truppa said.

All four aldermen were co-sponsors of the ordinance, but Harris, Lane, and Rice voted against it and Hairston abstained in a November 23 joint hearing of the City Council’s finance and housing committees.

The Hyde Park Herald reports that Mayor Daley’s floor leader introduced a counter ordinance that would set a non-binding goal of spending 10 percent of TIF revenues on affordable housing. The Sweet Home Chicago ordinance would require that 20 percent go to housing.

The new ordinance, introduced by Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), reflects Daley’s opposition to firm mandates. The Sweet Home Chicago ordinance previously had the support of a majority of council members.

The full council is scheduled to consider the two ordinances on Wednesday, December 8.

Grassroots voices on Chicago schools

Fifteen years of mayoral control has failed to improve Chicago Public Schools, yet leading mayoral candidates are promising more of the same – or worse.

In January the Chicago Tribune reported that achievement levels are no better in elementary schools opened under Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 than in neighborhood public schools– and worse than average at his new high schools. (District-wide, according to Catalyst, “not much progress.”)

This despite millions of dollars pumped into new schools by Chicago’s business community – and “flexibility” which allows them to evade accountability and push out students they don’t want.  Catalyst and WBEZ reported last week that the rate of expulsions in Chicago’s charter schools is more than three times higher than other schools – and the vast majority of expulsions in charter schools are for misconduct that wouldn’t merit such punishment in general schools.

The business model that Renaissance 2010 followed has delivered widening achievement gaps, increased violence and fiscal insolvency, as Mike Klonsky writes. But it’s the essence of  Rahm Emanuel’s big, bold initiative – basically renaming the Renaissance Schools Fund (which, admittedly, is due for a name change) – which, PURE argues, would intensify the marginalization of schools serving the most challenging students.

So would the voucher schemes advanced by Gery Chico and James Meeks; in Meeks’s case, vouchers would benefit the private religious school he heads, which doesn’t accept students scoring beneath the 50th percentile on achievement tests.

But Renaissance 2010 also engendered an impressive grassroots movement to resist school closings and privatization plans that would create a two-tier school system.  That movement won several signal victories in recent months, including state legislation to bring transparency and accountability to CPS facilities planning, which has heavily favored Renaissance 2010 over neighborhood schools, and a victory for the Raise Your Hands Coalition and CTU when Mayor Daley freed up TIF surpluses, $90 million of which will go to schools.

Two more significant movement victories – the election of militant new CTU leadership committed to ground-level coalition organizing to bring teachers, parents, students and community groups together to defend schools, and the dramatic 43-day sit-in by parents at Whittier Elementary demanding a library for their kids – will be represented at the 10th annual curriculum fair of Teachers For Social Justice tomorrow.

CTU president Karen Lewis and Whittier leaders Araceli Gonzales and Daniela Mancilla will keynote the opening session of the fair, 10 a.m. (Saturday, November 20) at Orozco Community Academy, 1940 W. 18th.  In addition, spoken word artist Kevin Coval of Young Chicago Authors will perform with the Louder Than a Bomb All-Stars.

Six hundred teachers, students, parents, and community activists are expected at the fair, which will feature a series of workshops along with curriculum exhibits from Chicago teachers and presentations by teachers and students.

The business model of school reform may be stalled, but there’s no shortage of energy and creativity at the grassroots, and it will be on full display tomorrow.

Answers on TIF housing ordinance

Aldermen had lots of questions at yesterday’s hearing on an ordinance dedicating 20 percent of TIF expenditures to affordable housing, as the Sun Times reports – and organizers have answers.

“Aldermen demanded to know how the mandate would impact their control over TIF spending,” Fran Spielman writes.

“It’s not going to change the way projects are brought forward,” said Julie Dworkin of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, whose research has bolstered the proposal from the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition.  “Aldermen will still have to sign off on them; they can still say no.”

The ordinance would require the planning department, which advances development proposals, to ensure that the citywide target is met.

How would it be enforced?  The ordinance includes detailed reporting requirements, Dworkin, said, covering the funds available in each TIF district, the number of proposals, whether they’re approved and how the decisions were reached.  (Indeed, it would go some way toward addressing critics’ concerns about TIF’s lack of transparency.)

On top of that, the ordinance provides residents with a “right of action,” meaning they can sue the city if the ordinance isn’t followed.

Finally, would the ordinance stymie development in Chicago neighborhoods?  No, said Dworkin.  “There are a lot of projects already in the pipeline that meet the affordability requirement,” she said. (Developments with 50 percent of units affordable at 50 percent of area median income would be counted toward the citywide requirement.)

Most of the city’s affordable housing developers are already meeting it – it’s the market-rate developers who need encouragement, she said.

“People are doing development with 100 percent affordable all the time,” she said.  “There’s no question it’s doable.”

The ordinance would shift taxpayer resources toward the kind of development the city desperately needs.

The ordinance has 25 cosponsors, and two more alderman have committed to vote for it.  Progress Illinois reports signs that Mayor Daley will “put up a fight” — because it’s he and not the aldermen who control the funds — and points out that city claims that TIF already supports affordable housing are much exaggerated.

While housing committee chair Ray Suarez talking about holding another hearing – with opponents of the ordinance (fat-cat developers?) – “we’re pushing for a vote,” Dworkin said.

TIF funds for housing, schools

With the city’s inspector general reporting that over a million dollars in Central Loop TIF funds were lost, SEIU members will rally tomorrow at City Hall with alderman who support a Sweet Home Chicago Coalition proposal to dedicate 20 percent of the city’s TIF revenues to affordable housing.

The rally takes place on the 2nd floor of City Hall at 9 a.m., Wednesday, June 30.

“Union members are feeling the impact of the foreclosure crisis in their neighborhoods and see the ordinance as a way to reverse the trend of crime and abandonment,” according to a release from SEIU Local 1 and SEIU Healthcare.  The unions represent tens of thousands of Chicago residents.

Chicago Jobs With Justice is also participating in the rally.

A hearing on the ordinance at a joint meeting of the City Council’s finance and real estate committees is set for July  7.

The ordinance has 25 aldermanic cosponsors, according to Eithne McMenamin of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.  (For more on the ordinance see last October’s Newstip.)

Meanwhile the Raise Your Hand Coalition, which has received no response to a letter to Mayor Daley asking for a meeting on recapturing TIF funds for public schools, is preparing to launch a mass letter-writing and e-mail campaign to support the call, said Amy Smolensky.

The group, which includes parents at over 250 CPS schools, recently generated 120,000 letters and e-mails opposed to higher class sizes.  They were invited to a press conference yesterday where CPS chief Ron Huberman announced elementary class sizes would remain at current levels.

The coalition, which is dedicated to a long-term solution to Illinois schools’ chronic funding crisis, supports the Chicago Teacher’s Union call for greater budget transparency, Smolensky said.

New housing in Humboldt Park is green, affordable

With the housing crisis still growing, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation is celebrating the opening of Rosa Parks Apartments in Humboldt Park – while other affordable housing initiatives, including the Zapata Apartments and an ordinance to provide TIF funding citywide, gain momentum.

Governor Quinn will join elected officials and community leaders at an opening ceremony tomorrow (Thursday, June 10) at 10 a.m. at 541 N. Homan.

Comprising eight new buildings sited on long-vacant lots in the vicinity of Homan and Ohio, the Rosa Parks Apartments contain 94 units of one- to four-bedroom rental apartments and will be affordable to residents making below 50 percent of area median income, with Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund support for very-low income tenants.

It’s Bickerdike’s first comprehensively-designed green development, with solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and green roofs, among other features.

The $27 million project received $3.5 million in TIF funds and has been cited by the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition in support of an ordinance that would dedicate 20 percent of TIF funds to affordable housing (see last year’s Newstip).  Support among aldermen is steadily growing and approaching enough votes to pass the ordinance, said Luis Padial of Bickerdike.

Padial also said that supporters yesterday delivered over 3,100 signatures in support of the Zapata Apartments, a joint project of Bickerdike and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (see Newstips), which has met vocal opposition from some condo owners.

He said Ald. Robert Maldonado (26th Ward) and Rey Colon (35th) both support the project, and they expect to win zoning changes in the City Council this summer.  “We hope to close on the deal by the end of this year and begin construction next year,” Padial said.  Legal challenges to the project should be resolved in the next few months, he said.

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