Defining “blight” still matters for urban redevelopment

The term “blight” might conjure up the urban renewal of the post-World War II era where the application of the term to poorer and non-white areas could lead to redevelopment. Yet, the term is alive and well: funding for the proposed Lincoln Yards project in Chicago is tied to the concept.

But the clock also was ticking for another reason. If Emanuel and Sterling Bay had waited much longer, the development no longer would have qualified for its record-high taxpayer subsidy, a Tribune analysis has found.

To get the money, the area had to meet at least five state standards to be considered “blighted.” The city could then designate it as a tax increment financing district. At the time of the vote, the area met the bare minimum.

Less than six weeks later, new property assessments were completed. The rising values of the Lincoln Yards land meant the TIF district no longer met one of the five standards, according to the Tribune analysis of the values of hundreds of parcels…

The Tribune’s finding comes as community groups are asking a judge to reverse the City Council’s decision. They say the area is not blighted and would be redeveloped without the taxpayer assistance, given that it’s centered on the Chicago River just west of Lincoln Park.

According to an Illinois government website, “blight” is not the only word used to describe land that might be eligible for TIF districts:

Funds may be used for costs associated with the development or redevelopment of property within the TIF, allowing blighted, declining and underperforming areas to again become viable, and allowing these areas to compete with vacant land at the edge of urban areas.

Not surprisingly, this is about money: how much public money would the developers get as they went about the project? As the article notes, such use of public money is contentious. In this particular project in Chicago, the location and size of the property is particularly valuable. Does a developer need much public money when there is so much that could be made on the project? Or, thinking in terms of opportunity costs, could such public monies be used to spur development in locations that are initially less attractive to developers?

More broadly, this gets at foundational questions about development in general. Who ultimately benefits from development: local residents, the city/municipality, and/or the developer? The growth machines model suggests development benefits local business leaders working with officials and other leaders who benefit from growth (and the status and revenues that come with that). Local residents could see some improvements through new development but the developers and business leaders are the ones who truly profit financially.

(See an earlier post regarding the term blight and its application to Foxconn’s development in Wisconsin.)

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