The Racial Work of Tax Increment Financing: How Municipal Finance Makes and Remakes Uneven Geographies of Social Difference

Authors: Hilary Wilson*, CUNY - Graduate Center
Topics: Economic Geography, Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: TIF, Uneven Development, Milwaukee
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM
Room: Galerie 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the last three decades, city governments across the United States have increasingly turned to tax increment financing, or TIF, to subsidize private development. Gaining popularity after the end of the federal urban renewal program in 1974, the widespread adoption of TIF coincided with the broader liberalization and expansion of the financial sector. TIF is particularly appealing to local governments because it allows cities to repay municipal bonds through increases in property values within areas designated for development, freeing them from the regulatory restrictions and possible credit downgrading associated with general obligation debt. In my paper, I argue that the implementation of tax increment financing operates according to the logics of racial capitalism in at least two ways. First, TIF is predicated on the existence of uneven development and exploits the racialized associations between value, risk, and place that have historically legitimated patterns of investment and disinvestment. Second, TIF produces uneven landscapes by securing through coercive tactics exclusionary spaces of “value”, and through the transfer of public assets into private hands. Using several TIF-funded projects in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as case examples, and paying particular attention to the public discourse and official narratives surrounding the projects, I show that racial thinking is central to the identification and legitimation of TIF projects. A close reading of TIF planning documents and municipal budgets also reveals that public resources are being surreptitiously redistributed upwards and outwards for the benefit of affluent residents in the region as well as a far-flung investor class.

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