The TIF Illumination Project


In 2009, a group of volunteer activists were working to defeat Chicago’s bid for the 2019 Summer Olympics. The main argument Mayor Richard Daley was using to justify the huge expense and civic effort: Chicago was broke. Tom Tresser was one of the campaign’s lead organizers, and he secured all annual reports for the city’s (at that time) 164 TIF districts. He discovered that they held $1.7 billion in property taxes at the start of 2009.

We were able to torpedo Chicago’s bid – in part, by communicating the lies and distortions to the general public and tanked public support for the bid, which, in turn, caused IOC members to reject Chicago in the first round of voting in October 2009. This led Tresser to launch a long-term investigation into TIFs and the larger issue of how to explain opaque public policy involving billions of public dollars, loaded with conflicts of interest, and which is generally shunned by the local media.

In February 2013, he launched the all-volunteer TIF Illumination Project, which combines data mining, investigative reporting, map making, graphic design and community organizing. We explain what TIFs are and how they impact our communities on a ward by ward basis. Since then, we have presented our research and analysis at 80 public meetings.

The TIF work led to the publishing of a book, “Chicago Is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve,” in 2016. The book has triggered 66 public meetings. Over 10,000 people have attended these public forums. We’ve activated hundreds of volunteers, interns, researchers and community organizers with this work.

Chicago is the most corrupt city in America. We are also Ground Zero for terrible privatization deals (including the notorious 2008 deal that leased our parking meters to Morgan Stanley for 75 years). Chicago is also famous for top-down urban planning that favors the central Loop area, clouted (White) developers and disinvesting and neglecting its communities of color.

The story of Tax Increment Financing districts and the billions of public dollars they have diverted over the years is at the heart of Chicago’s toxic and corrupt civics. It’s about power, clout, greed, racist policy, and outmoded thinking about what a city is for and WHO it is for.