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featured innovator

Image of Gianna Baker

Gianna Baker

Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance

Chicago, Illinois

LinkedIn: Gianna Baker

innovation spotlight

Illuminating Racist Local Economic Development Policies

Starting Date: 2013-02-01

Innovation Summary

Our work reveals how Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs) steal billions of property tax dollars annually – robbing public schools and completely subverting local economic development efforts.

At its core, CAFHA engages in collaborative work that identifies opportunities and policy fixes needed to strengthen federally-funded Public Housing Authority Homeownership Programs, which are an existing and proven wealth-building tool for first generation Black homeowners.

Since 2000, the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development has allowed local Public Housing Authorities to implement Homeownership Programs that shift participants from a typical voucher that pays a portion of monthly rent to a voucher that contributes to homeownership. Unfortunately, these homeownership programs remain largely inaccessible to voucher holders. CAFHA developed a groundbreaking policy report with targeted recommendations and best practices for mitigating these barriers. With about 85% of Cook County’s Housing Choice Voucher participants identifying as African American, CAFHA insists on PHA Homeownership as an opportunity to advance meaningful restitution for Black families who for decades have endured race-based redlining, wealth-stripping, mass displacement and other consequences of discriminatory policies. CAFHA is equipped with data, expertise, and key partnerships to advance a strong policy advocacy campaign that can help change the landscape for voucher homeownership and decrease the homeownership divide.

questions & answers

What is the geographic reach of your work to date?


Which metropolitan areas (if any) does your work focus on?

Chicago metro/suburbs, Detroit, Cincinnati, Louisville

What is the core idea of your innovation? How does it increase the value of homes in Black communities?

The CivicLab’s TIF Illumination Project ( is an essential tool for any effort aiming to increase Black equity in America. Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs) are a widely used tool (tens of thousands of municipalities across 49 states) that strips property dollars FROM local units of government and doles them out to clouted (mostly) White developers for private projects. This program has been trundling on for over 40 years and is a major cause of gentrification and inequity AND it also the source of corruption and local political power. In Chicago in 2020 136 TIF districts removed $820 MILLION and at the end of the year, there was a staggering $1.9 BILLION in property taxes sitting in our TIF accounts. The collection and distribution of these funds here, and anywhere they exist, is secretive and OFF THE BOOKS. That is, this program is a gigantic slush fund that distorts and erodes any public policy planning process that purports to address equitable local economic development. We call out this entire program – wherever it is found – as corrupting and racist. Our arguments are spelled out in detail at Our work helps people understand this scam and shows them how much of their property tax dollars were swallowed up by the TIFs of where they live. In Chicago, we operate on a ward-by-ward basis. In other places, we Illuminate one village or municipality at a time. We place TIFs in the long line of abuse suffered by communities of color – from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to Red Lining to contract home buying scams to predatory lending, disinvestment, over-policing, and closing of public schools. If you believe that a local government can and should assist in local development in communities of color – through affordable housing programs, through direct cash assistance in down payments for homeowners, for structural improvements TO the community – including excellent public schools that make communities livable – then you must master the TIF game and be prepared to call it out. Our work directly impacts the worth of Black homes in that we show a major reason why Black communities are so sandblasted and poorly situated. We are calling for the abolition of Chicago’s TIF program and a cash infusion of $10 BILLION into Black and Brown communities – that is the total amount of property taxes stolen by TIFs here since 1986.

How is your idea new or different from current approaches?

There is nothing like the TIF Illumination Project ( in the USA that I am aware of. The CivicLab is a Black-led 501 c 3 nonprofit “do tank” for government accountability, grassroots democracy, and social justice ( Our work is grounded on the Cycle of Liberation, the Ladder of Participation, Human Centered Design, and the practices of Popular Democracy. Our team has over 120 combined years of community organizing work, grassroots campaigning, and fighting for social justice. We use data visualization, storytelling, and community organizing to get the basic research on TIFs done and then design community forums to impart the data AND to train new Illuminators to dig deeper and carry on the work on their own. We’re working with activists in 12 cities right now – especially noteworthy is our collaboration with the Detroit People’s Platform ( – for details of some of this work, please go to Our work has been called a form of “data liberation” and we place it in line with the organizing and public education around the 99%/Occupy Movement, the campaign for policy defunding, the movement for Black Lives and Reparations, and an overall critique of the neoliberal frame for planning and economic progress. We see ourselves as Popular Educators – helping people imagine the futures of their communities and asking them to define what “community development” means to THEM, not to well-paid consultants, political hacks, White led think tanks, or wealthy and clouted real estate moguls. We present the data that is intentionally hidden FROM the people, all the while city powers repeat a narrative of scarcity and austerity, denying people access to their own public dollars. The people are going to need to organize around this and to elect local leaders who will end this racist scam. There is no market solution here – the market, in collusion with former government leaders GOT us to this sorry state. We need a robust PUBLIC response to the perilous state of Black wealth and homeownership in America. Exposing the poison of TIFs and ending them is a prerequisite for such solution.

What are the primary circumstances that devalue homes in Black communities that you are addressing? What is the impact?

Chicago is the most corrupt city in America ( There are three sitting City Councilmen under federal indictment right now. Some 32 City Councilfolk have been convicted of felonies since 1972. Two Illinois Governors in a row were convicted of crimes and sent to prison. On top of that, we are the home to the University of Chicago and its Business School – where the market is worshipped and lifted up as THE solution to all social and economic problems. Chicago is therefore the home to a particularly noxious series of public programs that reflect a neoliberal construct that says business is THE model for government and which dumps a shroud of false austerity and scarcity on the body politic. Add to that a baked history of racism and segregation (we recently noted the one hundredth anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919 which saw horrendous violence committed on Black Chicago) and you have a cesspool of bad conditions for people of color. These conditions have been documented ad nauseum, the latest depressing reports come from the University of Illinois’ Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy ( I would add the report from the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago” (, which estimates that Black homeowners were ripped off of approximately $4 billion by the Contract Home Buying scam. Chicago is basically run for the benefit of a small number of wealthy and connected set of players that populated a tight civic ecosystem of Big Law, real estate developers, large planning firms, corrupt politicians, conservative foundations, and a handful of Old Money Families. Recent studies reveal homes owned by Blacks are over-taxed and under assessed. Black communities pay higher price for water and are overly burdened by fines from red light cameras, parking, and even bike riding. Banks have avoiding investing in Black communities ( These are main drivers the lack of Black wealth here. Hatred, greed, and prejudice put Black communities under the yoke and incompetence, self-dealing, and racism continues to keep them in terrible shape.

What were your “aha” moments (the key insights) that led you to see how your innovation could work?

My fascination with TIFs began in 2009 when I was an organizer with the No Games Chicago campaign to derail Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics ( The main argument for pursuing the Bid was that Chicago was broke. We were lacking public dollars AND we were bereft of IDEAS on how to make prosperity happen for all. I obtained all the TIF reports for 2008 and, with a team of volunteers, opened all 164 PDF documents and compiled the totals from each TIF’s year-end balance. The result was the staggering finding, never before revealed, that at the end of 2008 Chicago had $1.7 BILLION sitting in its TIF accounts (you can get our 2020 report here: We demolished the city’s case and public support for the Bid evaporated. I found TIFs to be poorly understood and protected by the Chicago Machine. In 2012 I organized a team of volunteers that included researchers, data nerds, graphic designers, and organizers. In February of 2013 I co-produced a public forum on TIFs that was the launch of the TIF Illumination Project (see We asked the attendees if they would like an analysis of the TIFs of THEIR communities. To date we have presented at over 184 public meetings in front of over 13,000 people. The AHA moment came first when we discovered the $1.7 billion TIF balance in the Spring of 2009 and then again, in 2013, as I fielded income requests for this service. The project has evolved into a peer-to-peer, popular education-based investigation of public funds used for enriching the wealthy few at the expense of people of color. We have been called to help dozens of groups and are working with activists in 12 cities right now ( Chicago’s TIFs have stolen over $10 BILLION in property taxes. The Loop looks the way it does BECAUSE of TIF subsidies heaped on clouted developers. Chicago’s Black homeowners have been doubly ripped off. Their property taxes have been stolen AND the city has not used its abundant public funds to improve Black communities, create innovative paths to how ownership, or developed the human capital IN those communities. The result is low household wealth, low rates of homeownership AND less value for Black homes.

How does your innovation create structural change? What will be different in 5-10 years if you are successful?

Black household wealth is heading to zero ( It will take massive public intervention to repair hundreds of years of racist public policies and programs. At the CivicLab, we say we are about expanding civic imagination and moving Chicago from a frame or narrative of scarcity and civic austerity to a frame of civic abundance and possibility. Our TIF work has given thousands of people the information and the tools to understand the true economic circumstances of Chicago. We explain how TIFs work and reveal the vast subsidies paid out to developers. We produce maps and graphics on a ward-by-ward basis. We plot the location of all public schools in these maps and report on the schools closed and cut. We report on conflicts of interest here developers receiving public dollars have contributed to the local city council member. We call for the abolition of TIFS ( and the liberation of the $1.9 BILLION sitting in the TIF accounts and distributing those funds to the units of government that would’ve received those funds in the first place. Our public schools would receive $1.06 billion. The city would receive $342 million AND there would over $820 million that would flow to all units of local government going forward – property tax dollars that HAD been captured and sequestered by TIFs. We believe that these one-time windfalls should serve as a down payment on Reparations for Black Chicago. We can see Chicago partnering with local foundations to simply buy up all homes under water and give them to people of color ( We can see these funds being used to pay down mortgages and fix up homes. We see involving our neighbors in this discussion – which we have been doing since 2013 – how do THEY want such infusions of public capital to be spent? The bottom line is that Chicago’s TIF program is strangling communities of color and bleeding essential public services heavily used by (and which also EMPLOYS) Black people. They are racist and no real economic justice can happen here as long as they function. Revealing and understanding TIFs is the first step in the movement to abolish them and replace that corrupt program with a plan for real economic development in communities of color.

What is your innovation’s path to (i.e. strategy for) success? What momentum or impact have you achieved thus far?

Our momentum is amazing and demonstrates a real need in the community for our TIF Illumination and financial advocacy services. The CivicLab has no paid staff, no office, and no budget for marketing yet we’ve been asked to present at over 185 public meetings since 2013 – sharing our insights on local civic finances. Over 13,000 people have attended. Over 240,000 people have viewed our online presentations ( The civic marketplace is loaded with scholars and their excellent work – revealing details about how inequity maintains its pernicious grip on us. There are also many excellent street fighters and protest builders who are able to translate rage into protest, movement, and act as translators for people who are not academics. What our work provides is a bridge or onramp for informed and sustained civic engagement. We start with community-based organizations and local leaders who invite us into their spaces. We come with a perspective on the paramount importance of PUBLIC and the experience to be able to reveal hidden aspects of local civic finances. Our collaboration with community groups is usually triggered by some bad public policy being pushed aggressively and arrogantly through local government that will shower public dollars on a White developer to the detriment of local public services. COVID has amplified this spasm of civic rip-offs as local units of government push new projects while local leaders who question or oppose are sidelined and shut out of online meetings. We are working with activists from 12 cities right now in this way ( All this has been accomplished with no paid staff. So we are not able to do follow-ups or expand the base of people who have been trained with further training. We are unable to take out an ad in some progressive publication to announce that can do this work on a consulting basis. The vision we have is to do a national TIF enumeration and establish our work as a well-known and easily accessible gateway into fighting for economic justice, fighting local corporate welfare, lifting up people’s financial literacy, and a source of training to fight TIFs and related racist uses of the public’s assets. As I mentioned above, we see this work as part of a larger movement to activate justice champions to run for local office.

What will take your innovation to the next level?

I’m sure you hear this often: what we need is funding. Our work has been turned down over 50 times by local and national funders. I’ve applied to various fellowships and challenges with this work over the years. The closest we have come is being a finalist in the 2021 MIT Solve Global Challenge on Antiracism Technology and the United States (see our solution at Seven winners were chosen from the 15 finalists from this challenge. There were four other global challenges and over 1,800 solutions were submitted from 29 countries. SO – at least we can say that MIT agrees with the CivicLab that TIFs are, indeed, racist. To be recognized by Ashoka and the Brookings Institution would also connect us to activists, scholars, and funders that would be potential allies and collaborators. We seek to convene a virtual table pulling together activists who have been fighting for grassroots economic justice so that we may share best practices and craft a common agenda. We need help with coding and tech – to transfer our work into an accessible web site. We also seek to publish a physical atlas or gazette of TIFs which would contain data on a state-by-state basis. We want to create a national training space for activists to learn how to investigate and Illuminate the bogus economic development scams in their places. A dashboard for each city would have the basic info on how TIFs work, maps that show where the TIFs are and how much they are pulling from the public treasury. It would also show the projects funded by TIFs and who benefited from those subsidies. Such a tool could be connected to other measures of wellness and prosperity. Public meetings would explain the data and motivate people to participate in further research – as has happened with all our community partners. One powerful outcome will be heightened local participation in deciding what, exactly, a “developed community” looks like as well as organizing to get the local funds to make that vision happen. We see the data being liberated by this process becoming part organizing campaigns, policy demands, and even political campaigns. We see the people who participate IN the reporting and educating process as powerful change agents and leaders for the future. It’s already happened see this one minute testimony from Ms. Brooks->

How will you involve others to move your initiative forward?

We would love to systematically reach out to a wide array of players – if we had any sort of staffing or office situation. These include: national unions representing teachers and public sector workers, the National Urban League, the state associations of elected school board members, the NAACP chapters across the USA, the Poor People’s Campaign, and a number of national organizations that take on economic justice and grassroots democracy (e.g., Institute for Local Self-Reliance, DEMOS). We would need resources to prepare a case statement for these potential allies. Our basic approach is that we are reaching people at the grassroots level powerfully and cheaply. Partnering with the CivicLab in this work would bring new people into THEIR worlds and yield valuable insights to advance our mutual goal of securing economic and social justice for more people sooner than later. At the same time, we would seek to connect with local PTAs and other hyper-local groups of activists who are champions of public services and see the need to end corporate welfare and protect local government from rip-offs like TIFs. We need to mix this proven bottom-up approach with possible collaborations with larger or national organizations. We need resources to engage artists to produce nontraditional educational materials on economic justice and TIFs – such as zines, songs, artwork, and performance. Right now I (Tom Tresser) am handling all outreach and collaborator connecting. On December 15 we will do a Zoom call with the leadership of the Louisville Urban League to brief them on our work as they are embroiled in a controversial TIF district that was created with little advance notice (see We seek to be hired by them to do a comprehensive review of the TIFs of the city and Kentucky as prep for a wide-ranging civic engagement campaign. For a sketch of what this sort of engagement might yield, see for the graphics from our work with the Detroit People’s Platform.

What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.). How do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the innovation grows?

The TIF Illumination Project ( is led by Tom Tresser ( We have attracted dozens of volunteers over the years – especially from 2013 through 2015 when we operated a physical space in Chicago’s West Loop ( I am a long-time civic educator and public defender with decades of experience here doing grassroots democracy, fighting privatization, and teaching. I am basically a full-time volunteer having retired out of adjunct teaching at several local universities. We have done so much with so little. I would love to be able to hire my replacement and spread our work to our allies. For example, last week Jonathan Peck (our CEO) and I did a “TIF 101” online for Chicago’s Black Business Network (see We would love to have the resources to be able to powerfully follow up with the attendees and to push the work out to THEIR networks and allies. We’ve done over a dozen open enrollment workshops covering TIFs and how to fight them and hundreds have attended. It would be great to re-convene all those attendees and to equip them to do further research and civic education work in their communities. Our team consists of Tom Tresser (, Jonathan Peck (, Ama Johnson (, and Phillip Thomas ( Jonathan, Ama, and Phillip are African American. Myself, Jonathan, and Phillip are on the board of the CivicLab and Ama will be joining before the end of the year. We are volunteer staffers for the CivicLab but when we get paid consulting or training work, we do pay ourselves to teach and train. We will be having a two-day retreat in Chicago in mid-December to plan our work over the next two years. In the past we’ve conducted large scale Harambees (Swahili for “let’s all pull together”) to convene allies to learn and collaborate (see and would like to do two such gatherings annually. These gatherings help us stay in touch with our base and learn from our people.

How does your team reflect communities directly impacted by the topic you are addressing? Why are you, your team, or organization dedicated to the issue?

Our team has over 120 years combined experience in grassroots organizing, social justice, training, philanthropy, and nonprofit management. Tom was a co-leader of the No Games Chicago campaign in 2009 that derailed Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics ( That story is told in “Chicago 2016 Olympic Bid and Opposition” in Contesting the Olympics in American Cities (2021). We did over 75 public meetings for that campaign and travelled to Lausanne, Switzerland and Copenhagen, Denmark in order to bring our “No thanks!” message directly to the International Olympic Committee. That experience led him to seek the office of Cook County Board President in 2010 as the Green Party Candidate (54,000 votes). Tom conceived and organized the CivicLab in 2012 as a result of his arc of public work in Chicago. Who is REALLY looking after the people’s interests and studiously examining major public policy programs and public finances here? No one, it seemed. Tom believed (and still asserts) that social justice needs a home, a hub, a lab, and an incubator in Chicago (see argument at Jonathan was named “Social Justice Champion of the Year” for 2021 by Chicago African Americans In Philanthropy (see and has 25 years experience in community organizing, youth development, restorative justice, coaching, and training. He was the Executive Director of the Tucson Urban League from 2009 to 2012. He was a senior program director at Alternatives, Inc., working extensively with teens of color on restorative justice. He has been a member of the Advisory Council for the national Community Justice Network for Youth of the Hayword Burns Institute since 2001. Ama has over 20 years’ experience in senior level development for nonprofits and program development. She is an experienced elementary school teacher and is the founder and CEO of the UBUNTU Institute for Global Learning. Phillip was the senior African American in Chicago’s philanthropy sector as a Senior Program Director for the Chicago Community Trust. He has decades of experience in nonprofit management and teaching nonprofit practice. He was the President/CEO of the eta Creative Arts Foundation, Chicago’s largest African America theater, from 20011 to 2014. We are fiercely committed to justice, equity, peace, and harmony.

Is there anything else you think we should know about your innovation?

I’d like to repeat the fact that we have been turned down dozens of times for funding. Also, the major Chicago media outlets have refused to cover our work for years and only recently have we gotten any traction there. We are pretty much full-time volunteers with no paid staff or office. This is certainly not unique in the nonprofit social justice world – and more’s the pity. I often say “Democracy is not free” – but who is willing to pay? The “Other Side” is well funded with patient major foundation support, billionaire donors, and access to tens of millions of evangelical conservatives. I fear for America unless our progressive social justice champions can find our Koch Brothers and build an infrastructure to complete with ALEC, the Federalist Society, the Leadership Institute, Fox News, the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Scaife Foundations

( I repeat that the end game must be to govern and to turn our collective notions of justice into reality. Mo more studies. No more feel-good convenings where we repeat the woes of America to one another. We must ask ourselves – how did Trump come to power? We must ask ourselves – how do we prevent another Right-Wing Insurrection? We must collectively construct a path to power. And that includes mastering the intricacies of power dollars – we must govern in order to draft law, dictate budgets, appoint judges, and the course for our nation. I (Tom Tresser) am 69 and am nearing the end of my productive social justice career. I seek to create progressive social justice infrastructure that will outlast me and my colleagues. We need your help to start that vital task.

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