Judge spikes Chicago TIF suit
Grassroots groups blocked from refiling as judge sides with city’s argument on legal standing
By Ted Cox
CHICAGO — A Cook County Circuit Court judge spiked a suit filed against Chicago’s tax-increment-financing program Monday, ruling that the grassroots groups that filed it didn’t have the legal standing to do so.
In a ruling reported first by Block Club Chicago, Associate Judge Neil Cohen issued a written opinion Monday siding with Chicago city attorneys in their argument that the Grassroots Collaborative and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education had no legal standing to file the suit in April striking at the core of the city’s TIF program.
The two sides argued the case in court Wednesday before Cohen issued his written opinion.
Aneel Chablani, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who filed the suit on behalf of the groups, had sought to call Chicago’s entire TIF program into question. He focused on the $1.3 billion TIF district created for Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards development in a formerly industrial area along the North Branch of the Chicago River as what he called an “exemplary” illustration of the program’s abuses.
The Grassroots Collaborative, an umbrella group of Chicago activist organizations, and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education had charged that Lincoln Yards was a multi-billion-dollar development on highly desirable property on the city’s Near Northwest Side and as such not a “blighted” community that would go undeveloped “but for” the aid offered by the TIF funds — as required by the state statute. The TIF was thus illegal, they argued. They also suggested that the way the TIF program was conducted citywide — typically favoring more well-to-do areas at the expense of minority neighborhoods in need of actual development — was discriminatory and violated civil-rights law.
At one point during last week’s court hearing, Cohen seemed receptive to those arguments, comparing the city’s TIFs to “redlining” — the longtime pattern of discrimination in real estate between “white” and “black” neighborhoods — which the courts ultimately declared illegal.
But he was also swayed by the city’s arguments that the groups had failed to show a “distinct and palpable injury” on their own behalf through the city’s management of the TIF program. He said at the time that, in spite of their good and worthy intentions as government watchdogs, that did not give them the right to challenge the city TIF program in court. Cohen cited federal Judge James Zagel in saying, “Good intentions are not enough for standing.”
Although Chablani had argued that legal standing was rarely challenged in such cases, that was how Cohen came down on the issue Monday, writing that the arguments of city attorneys “clearly show that plaintiffs have no standing to bring suit against the city,” according to Block Club Chicago, as they did not allege a “legally cognizable interest fairly traceable to the city” in how they might have been damaged.
Cohen dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning the groups cannot refile it, but he did leave open the possibility that another person, business, or group that can show a “distinct and palpable injury” could file it using the same basic arguments.
The issue came up during last week’s court hearing, and Chablani said afterward, “We will evaluate all options” if Cohen spiked the suit, as he did.
“We are disappointed with today’s ruling,” said Timna Axel of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “The judge’s decision struck down our complaint based on legal standing, and did not address the substantive merits of our challenge to Chicago’s discriminatory and illegal administration of tax-increment financing. The $1.3 billion mega-TIF for Lincoln Yards exemplifies how our broken TIF system steers public funds away from families in under-resourced communities, particularly hurting people of color who are disproportionately impacted by inequitable funding.”
Axel echoed Chablani in saying, “We will continue to explore all legal options to end TIF abuse in Chicago.”
The groups vowed to fight on.
“Nothing about today’s decision will stop our decades-long fight to end the racist abuse of the TIF program by the city of Chicago,” said Amisha Patel, Grassroots Collaborative executive director. “We are going to continue to pursue both our legal and legislative options to stop the abuse of the program. We hope that the Lightfoot administration will join with us in the push for TIF reform instead of fighting us. We continue to call on her administration to hold hearings on the TIF program in the low-income neighborhoods that the TIF program was originally intended to help.”
“The $1.3 billion mega-TIF for Lincoln Yards is a perfect example of how our broken TIF system takes public funds away from families in under-resourced communities who need the most support, particularly hurting people of color,” said Jennie Biggs of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education. “Our public schools can’t afford for these abuses to continue. Inaction on this issue is not an option.”