City-owned Foster Field, located between Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center and the Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus building, is one of the public properties that lie within the proposed Five-Fifths TIF district. (RoundTable photo)

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Opinions and questions abounded at a recent meeting on the Five-Fifths TIF, the City’s newest proposed tax-increment financing (TIF) district, which, if approved, would cover portions of the City’s Fifth Ward.

Even the name of the City’s proposed new tax-increment financing (TIF) district is objectionable to some.

Evanston resident and activist Darlene Cannon said, “The Fifth Ward TIF was to make Black people whole. I want to understand how this TIF is going to make Black people whole. Are we going to have another richer, richer situation?”

Guest speakers and audience alike, however, appeared to agree that the concerns raised – about the potential negative effects of the TIF such as gentrification and the exodus of the Black population – were not going to be resolved through that evening’s discussion.

Nearly three dozen people attended the July 29 meeting convened by the Community Alliance for a Better Government (CABG) and held via Zoom. Lawyer and activist Jeff Smith and Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns first answered questions presented beforehand to moderator Sebastian Nalls and then addressed questions directly from those in attendance.

City officials have said the name of the proposed TIF, the Five-Fifths TIF, alludes to the former status of Black people in this country and indicates it would make the Fifth Ward “whole” by bolstering Black-owned businesses and improving the overall economy.

In a TIF district, the property tax increment – the difference in property tax revenues from the parcels when they were put into the TIF (the base amount) and the amount as time goes on and the property is improved – is kept in a TIF fund and may be used to pay for certain improvements in the TIF districts. The increment remains in the district until the TIF Is retired, typically after 23 years. Afterward, the unspent portion of the TIF fund’s property tax revenues are again divided among all taxing bodies with a stake in the parcels.

In Evanston, TIF funds were used to build the Sherman Avenue and Maple Avenue parking garages, revamp Fountain Square, construct the Levy Center and make other improvements in the TIF districts.

The proposed TIF district would be the City’s 10th; five have been retired and four are active: Main-Chicago; Howard-Ridge; West Evanston; and Dempster-Dodge. Current projects and proposals include the Ann Rainey Apartments on Howard Street and the building at the former site of Vogue Fabrics.

Smith said he does not believe the proposed TIF is the best tool to improve the Fifth Ward or the Evanston community.

Burns defended the proposed TIF and said he believes the improvements proposed, such as affordable housing and workforce development, would benefit the Fifth Ward. Workforce development, he said, could include training people to work on the lead-pipe replacement project the City is contemplating. “It’s about a two- or three-person job. So it’s good work. And we could use TIF funds to train people to do that work. And they can do that here in Evanston. But also, that will make them competitive to compete for work in other cities as well.”

“Infrastructure is another avenue. … We’ve talked a lot about expanding the footprint of Fleetwood, adding the swimming pool and other amenities that folks have talked about for a while in the community, but in the dedicated space for a roller skating rink; business district improvement; facade improvement; storefront modernization programs. …  But you know, our work here is very clear. What I’ve just listed is really the work we want to do. The last eligible use that’s probably worth talking about is supporting our small micro-businesses [like] Jennifer’s Edibles [and] Soul & Smoke.”

He also clarified that, although some TIF districts were qualified because the areas were considered “blighted,” the proposed TIF was qualified as a conservation area.

Is gentrification inevitable?

Several speakers at the July 29 meeting said they are concerned that gentrification will follow the TIF.

“So what happens to existing residences and businesses?” asked property owner and landlord Carlis Sutton. “How are their property taxes impacted by a TIF and the subsequent development of the area? And what may happen to some of the rest of us is that we’ll see an increase in property tax.” 

Answering first, Smith said his hope that is that an increase in business revenues would cover or at least help offset the additional costs, e.g., in property taxes. Affordable housing, if constructed, should be priced so people can remain in their homes.

“What they don’t want is property taxes increasing,” he said. Yet, as the neighborhood is improved, it becomes more attractive, and housing values and property taxes increase.

Land trusts are among the best mechanisms for keeping housing affordable, he said.

Burns said TIF funds could be used for repairing existing homes – for structural repairs, systems, electric, plumbing, climate resiliency and affordability.

He also promised that residents would participate in discussions of how to use the TIF funds.

“What we don’t want is for it to be used for luxury housing and eminent domain. … That’s the work that I’m committed to doing with the Five Fifths TIF and the larger community.”

Longtime resident Priscilla Giles said, “What we want is our homes, not a business. We’re not trying to make money out of our homes, we came to live. … The TIF problem is a problem. The TIF is not making homes and not even keeping homes for people who have been here in Evanston.

“The people now who are coming in are not looking for homes. They’re looking for a place to live for a period of time, and then they’re on their way. So they want the best money for them. That’s great. …  And the City of Evanston is looking forward to this template plan. It’s not looking for homes for original residents.”

Burns said, “We’re going to clarify that. When I say ‘affordable units’ – and I should be clear on this – I’m not only talking about to me; affordability is affordability; we need affordable housing.”

Kevin Brown, a member of CABG and outspoken advocate for racial justice, said he offered a comment and a question. “We have a City right now that has a leadership crisis. And so one of the challenges – and I haven’t heard an answer to the challenge – is that we have a City Council that’s had policies over the last 20 years that have increased gentrification. And that’s what we see happening with the TIF.”

He said that, while he supported Burns, “It’s the rest of the City Council that has for the last 20 years been on a track to increase the flow of Black people out of Evanston and has done nothing at all, from a policy perspective, to try to stem that. And so, unfortunately, what I see happening with the TIF is that it’s going to kind of seal the deal, and really prepare the area for the new inheritors. … And, as I said, I haven’t seen anything policy-wise, or ordinance-wise, that would kind of prevent those things from happening.”

Burns responded, “To me, again, this goes back to people needing stable housing and stable employment. … “So the question is, ‘What force is going to step in and try to balance it out so that people can afford to stay here and also, what real commitment are we going to make towards workforce development?’”

Longtime civil rights activist Bennett Johnson said he wished to make it clear that decisions about the TIF lie with the City Council.

“And then the second thing I want to say is that the TIF is, as was said in the meeting, a workable financing tool that really identifies objectives for the Conservation Area or area that is a target for economic development. The reason being is it really wants to tell you what’s possible: ‘Here are eligible recipients.’ It’s up to the cities themselves to come up with a plan, of which we have many outdated.

“This is why you have a comprehensive plan that’s outdated – or from staff that we’re working on going into another comprehensive planning process. We have economic development plans, we have affordable housing. So this TIF redevelopment plan does not exist independent of those other plans. Those planning documents, including the Westside Plan, are what drives TIF expenditures.”

Burns said he feels the proposed TIF district is different from other TIFs, because “we’re being very specific about what the money should be used for. And if anything is counter to gentrification, is counter to the longstanding trend of displacement of residents, is counter to those things that we see in the community [it is this TIF].”

He said the list of possible projects includes affordable housing, “trying to create new, affordable units here in the ward, and I want to add another layer on top of that: We need to make sure we have a local preference because a lot of the affordable housing projects that are approved in Evanston don’t have a local preference.”

“Workforce development will create jobs … The way to make sure that people are anchored to communities to make sure they have stable housing,” Burns said.

Smith said, “It’s a real challenge to try and improve an area without seeing it with so much money or making it so attractive that you end up pushing out the folks that were intended to be helped. Rogers Park has probably done a better job than most Chicago lakefront communities of dealing with that.”

He added, “Brick-and-mortar [businesses] are really struggling everywhere. And Black-owned businesses probably suffered more during the pandemic as a group across the country. And Evanston has a real shortage of affordable retail storefront space.”

Moreover, he said, mixed-use districts are being converted to residential districts, “so you’re talking about a lot more residential density, and no single-family homeowner of any color – Black, white, Brown, purple – wants to see a five-story building go up next to their lot.”

“Almost half the area in the proposed Five-Fifths TIF is public space – you’ve got the Civic Center, and you’ve got Fleetwood-Jourdain. I’m not sure where additional community centers would go – maybe revitalize some of the existing space.

“Again, we share the goals. But these questions need to be answered in a lot more detail, I think, before the City of Evanston commits to potentially siphoning off an awful lot of money that won’t be available for other purposes,” Smith concluded. 

A new school in the mix

With serious work on a new school in the Fifth Ward already underway, Mr. Nalls said, residents are concerned about the reciprocal impacts of the school and the TIF district. He read the question, “Will negotiations happen between the District 65 School Board and the City of Evanston to ensure residents are protected from gentrification and we are able to provide quality education to our youth that have been deprived?”

Burns said he had met with officials from both District 65 and District 202 and they seemed to concur with his goals of not displacing residents and blocking or limiting gentrification.

He continued, “If we do nothing, right, we’re going to continue to see the same results, which is the displacement of longtime Evanston residents. But if we can find a way to identify funds to support the things we know create stability and communities, then we may have a shot at slowing down what feels like an inevitable, unstoppable pattern that we see in every city. So we’re working with District  65. … And for the most part, I haven’t heard anything from either School District that the City wasn’t already committed to.”

Burns also said a TIF district “removes conversations about economic investment in a certain area [from the] traditional political process – not that it removes it from requiring a majority vote of the Council. That is still in place.”

Smith said, “If you’re building residential development, you’re adding households, you’re adding children, you’re adding, probably, classrooms, the need for more teachers, etc.”

“If you’re talking about actually building the school, of course, there’s an enormous cost associated with that. … Obviously, the loss of Foster School was a loss for the neighborhood. It was a trade-off that was made over a half-century ago with the support of the progressive and African American community of Evanston because it was felt that integration was really more important and putting an end to what was de facto segregation,” said Smith.

“There are folks who have wanted to have a Fifth Ward school for various reasons, including some that wanted to make it a quote, ‘African American Academy.’  

“I’m not a fan of segregation [or] nostalgia. And the Fifth Ward today is not the Fifth Ward that existed in the 1960s or the 1970s. And I don’t know that you can get that back. I don’t think we want to get that back as much as people may have respect for an understandable nostalgia for the bravery of folks who struggle against some of the evils of segregation.

“But the reality – and this is a harsh reality – is that the lack of a walk to school is part of what makes the Fifth Ward, or the part of the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay, affordable.

“A school in a neighborhood is desirable. … If you add a walk to school – at the old Foster School or anywhere else in the historic Fifth Ward – that is an ingredient in gentrification. You’re not going to be able to limit it [the school] by race, constitutionally. So that’s something to be considered,” Smith continued.

“It’s likely to drive up property values and prices and the desirability of a neighborhood. That creates wealth for people that were there. But it is an ingredient in gentrification.”

Smith also noted that the TIF plan provides that if more school-age children move into the TIF district, the schools will receive compensation from the TIF funds. 

Next steps

Smith said, “I’ve always believed and I still believe that most of us have a lot more in common than we do different. And things have changed in the Fifth Ward. … And a majority of the Black people in Evanston, according to the last census, didn’t live in the Fifth Ward.

“My concerns about the TIF in schools come back to money. You’ve got four other TIF districts right now in Evanston. I think you’re a good man, Council Member Burns; I share where your heart is it. I just don’t like the tool.”

Burns said he had articulated the vision for the TIF and added, “I definitely think what Jeff said about this being a high-growth area and there are pressures that will happen because generally, that is to visit desirable area. … So we do have tools to address what does feel like an inevitable outcome. You have tools to work against, update this TIF. This is one way that we would like to do that.”

There is no set date for the City Council to consider the Five-Fifths TIF.

 

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