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#ChiMayor19—Episode 2: Megaprojects For The Rich, Crumbs For The People

Listen to the episode of “#ChiMayor19” with journalist Aaron Cynic by clicking the below player:

 

In conjunction with reporting from journalist Aaron Cynic on the Chicago mayoral election, Shadowproof is producing a limited podcast series, “#ChiMayor19,” featuring Aaron.

A new episode will be posted after each of Aaron’s reports on issues, which grassroots groups believe candidates for mayor must address if they are elected.

The second episode in the podcast series is on megaprojects for wealthy developers in Chicago that are approved at the expense of struggling communities in the city. It ties in to Aaron’s report published on January 14.

Here is a link to the file for the second episode. It can be directly downloaded to your computer or phone for listening by right-clicking the player.

If you appreciate Aaron’s journalism, please consider donating to help us fund his reporting on the Chicago mayoral election.

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Below is a transcript of part of the conversation in the episode.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: To the issue of neighborhood investment, or disinvestment, why don’t you take a moment to explain the concept of TIFs before we dig into what we are talking about here with Sterling Bay and this megaproject that you highlighted.

AARON CYNIC: TIF stands for tax increment financing. Without actually talking about anything in practice, it’s a district that captures property tax growth revenue for an area for a set amount of time. In Chicago, that’s usually a bit more than two decades. That money then gets diverted into a fund meant for projects designed to eradicate blight in neighborhoods. So, very specifically, this is supposed to be something that you take this property tax money that is not necessarily from the exact area in which it is located and you capture that money and you use some of that money to fix up another area that’s struggling financially or struggling for any number of reasons.

What we have seen in Chicago not only for the past eight years of Rahm Emanuel but also throughout Mayor Daley is that typically so much of this money is being pushed to downtown, to the Loop area. That’s been happening for many, many, many years here. Because things like property taxes here, they’re funding things like schools, parks, and libraries and things like that. So you’re seeing money that should be going to these things then being essentially scooped up and doled out in the form of tax subsidies to already usually wealthy corporations and developers who want to relocate their stuff.

In the case of the really specific one we talk about, Lincoln Yards, which is the site of an old steel plant, the developer Sterling Bay wants to build this giant megaproject. A body of City Council, which is called the Joint Review Board, approved—now it has to go through more of an approval process—but it approved a $900 million TIF which is going to go to Sterling Bay, which is the developer, to build the infrastructure for this mega-development in an already extremely gentrified area, which is will just encourage more gentrification to spread even further.

The question that people have to ask is why are these developers and already rich entities getting this money to build these huge projects, many of which there’s already been a lot of pushback as to whether people want some of the things that are part of this particular project. Why are they getting this type of money from the city and yet black and brown neighborhoods on the south and west sides barely see anything?

In doing this story, it reminded me—We’re talking about $900 million in subsidies to this company here, and for a while, they were talking about building a brand new soccer stadium and several music venues and all of this stuff in this compact area in Lincoln Park [north side]. But over the summer, I was down on the south side and I remember talking to people who said I can’t even get my alderman to fix my damn street light. It’s like something as simple as fixing basic infrastructure in one part of the city, people scramble to find money for that or just ignore  requests from residents altogether.

The Lincoln Yards was also among those that was considered for Amazon’s HQ2 when Chicago was bidding on it, and both the city and the state were ready to give away $2 billion in subsidies. That’s what this is about.

The current and more local saga—You’ve got people who are really trying to ram this through before the election. You’ve got activists from a lot of different groups saying we need to slow this process down. We’re not totally against it, but we want to take our time. We want to wait until we have a new City Council and a new mayor before this process is approved. You have other people who say we shouldn’t be doing this at all. We need to scrap the entire process altogether.

But it is interesting how our current City Council members ar hellbent on ramming this particular mega-development before the elections in February and then the runoff, which would be April 2. Because why not at least slow down, and I think part of that is, going back to the [Grassroots Collaborative] forum, one of the questions that was asked again was will you call for a delay on mega-TIF proposals. Literally, every candidate answered yes.

This is a moment that we’re having where we’re talking about the difference between folks who seem to be a bit more malleable and seem to want to work with community activist groups and groups who are really pushing to transform the city into a more equitable place and the people who are already in power, who have no desire to work with anyone. That’s sort of why we’re trying to see folks ram this project through.

GOSZTOLA: Probably what you have parallels this national trend, where we’re seeing that people would support having a 70 percent tax on those that make income above $10 million/year. Mirrored is people have learned how the TIF process works in Chicago, and they’re interested in having some more limits and not giving the wealthy people of Chicago carte blanche to build whatever they want wherever they want at the expense of struggling communities and basically open season, as far as real estate goes in Chicago.

You’ve made the point that often in Chicago we’re a broke city when the people come asking for money for public programs that can assist marginalized neighborhoods or struggling communities, but that’s not a problem we have if Jeff Bezos wants to build his Amazon headquarters in Chicago. It’s not an issue we have if George Lucas wants to build a museum or if some other person who is a friend of Rahm wants to put their project in the city. Talk about that dynamic.

CYNIC: I’m a Star Wars fan. I grew up on those movies and that franchise, but at the same time, George Lucas essentially wanted to build an attic along our lakefront to store all his stuff. Sure, a museum would have been cool. At the same time, there was a big freakout over it, where people were like, oh, I can’t believe people are opposed to this. It’s such a good idea, and it’s going to be such an economic engine. It’s like, wait, a minute. It’s going downtown, and two, the city was ready to give it to him for a fucking dollar. Why are we giving away our public parkland to an already billionaire?

There was also an issue of giving him that parkland anyway. Sure, bring your museum here. Buy some land and build it and build it in a neighborhood that could actually use it. And when you’re talking about jobs, like Amazon jobs, in many cases your talking about lower wage jobs. In other cases, you’re talking about transfers. You’re talking about say X company moves its company from the suburbs to Chicago. On the surface, you’ve brought jobs to Chicago, but really, those people just transferred work from one place to another. You didn’t create anything new.

There’s still a fight with former President Barack Obama, who is from here, over his library. The plans are to build it in a park on the south side, which is good, but at the same time, the community wants a community benefits agreement. They want an agreement with the Obama Foundation specifically saying you are going to make sure that they are going to hire local people, and they are going to pay them good wages. You are going to use local companies to build it—Basic things to make sure that if you’re going to build it here it should benefit the people that live here.

I think that’s a very, very basic ask, and even if the Obama Foundation has been fighting this and there’s a legal battle over it. But you referenced [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the 70 percent tax increase, and I think that there is definitely a parallel here because [on January 18] 670 The Score, which I believe is a local sports radio station, had owner of the Cubs, Tom Ricketts, on air, who said that the Cubs have $20-30 million taxes that other teams don’t have to pay, and they have to cover stadium expenses, which many teams don’t do.

We are talking about a family that is worth more than $5 billion, and Tom, who owns the Cubs, owns an $18 million home on a private beach along the lakefront. And you have these people saying, well, we’re paying too much taxes. These are mega-billionaires. These are people who can afford to pay for the things that the rest of us would have to pay. These are people who can afford to pay the tax rate that we had literally four decades ago.

I think it shows how much the right and wealthy people have gained over the past four decades, where we have to go to folks hat in hand just to get them to pay their bills. But when they show up and are like, listen, I would like to take a bunch of your public land. I don’t want to pay you for it. I don’t actually want to pay taxes either, but you know, we’re going to give you a little bit of crumbs. It’s just ridiculous.

When Ocasio-Cortez talks about the 70 percent tax on people who are already making a ton of money—and it’s not taking 70 percent of their total income, I mean, these are people who can afford to pay these things, and they just have so much power. And they’ve amassed so much power over the years that this is what we’re left with. That’s a larger statement, and I think folks in communities like Chicago—or anywhere else across the country, this is what people are up against. This is why folks need to fight so hard and why sometimes it literally takes decades or more to get anywhere.

I was talking about this larger issue with a friend of mine, and he said, people act like serfdom and feudal culture died during the Middle Ages and capitalism is something new that took over. It’s like, no, we just swapped kings and lords for CEOs and senators. Or in the local case, city council members and developers.

GOSZTOLA: As we come to the end of our conversation, I’d like to acknowledge what you touch upon very briefly at the end of your piece, which is that there are some measures already available that organizers have already pushed people to introduce in the city. So any of these mayors that really want to step up and do something transformative to address mass gentrification, they can do that. They can address the politics of clout, as one of the community activists, Tom Tresser, calls it. He’s done a lot of work on TIFs.

So, specifically, you mention that in Logan Square (which you can help people place that in Chicago) there are low income longtime Latinx families that have been impacted, and there’s actually an effort to help fight gentrification in this part of Chicago.

CYNIC: There’s a lot of legislative efforts. Tom is the guy who has pointed out that Chicago is not broke. And Amisha Patel from the Grassroots Collaborative is the person who pointed out some of this legislation to me. But you know, Logan Square is a neighborhood on the city’s near northwest side, and I’d say over the past five to ten years ago it has undergone some of the most rapid gentrification that we’ve seen all too much in the city.

I was on this bus tour where were literally next to a house that a Latinx family had lived in for generations, and they’re about to get priced out because the house next door is getting gut rehabbed and will probably sell for $1 million.

There’s legislation around affordable housing, making sure that if you are building a development you have to make sure you have X amount of units for low income people. Otherwise, everybody’s rent goes up. People are also pushing rent control, which would be huge, and that would also help with that.

Kind of on a larger level, we talked about the Obama library. Like I said, there are people fighting for a community benefits agreement. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has been pushing for legislation that would put proceeds from the sales of luxury homes to efforts to prevent homeless. These are things that could not only be pushed through, but if implemented,  not immediately but over time stem the tide of massive income inequality here and on a national level too. If you couple that with increasing the minimum wage and increasing community services for people, at that point, you stem this kind of lords versus peasants thing that has been happening all across the country for the past couple of decades.

The next episode of #ChiMayor19 will tie into police accountability and struggles for justice in Chicago.

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