Social & Education Policy

Blighting the Way: Urban Renewal, Economic Development, and the Elusive Definition of Blight

Gordon, C.


This article examines the way municipalities have used increasingly broad interpretations of
“blight” to compete for state tax increment financing (TIFs) for economic development purposes.
It traces the definition of blight in the context of state and federal urban redevelopment programs
from the nineteenth century through the Progressive Era to the advent of TIF laws in the 1980s and
90s. It goes on to discuss the how the concept of ”blight” has shifted from a condition of substandard
housing to a condition of ”sub-optimal” local economic development, in part due to intense
competition among municipalities for TIFs. The article concludes that excessively broad state
definitions of ”blight” and concepts like ”future blight” have fueled a ”tax grab” and converted
TIF laws from tools for eradicating substandard housing conditions to a way for municipalities
to ”pad the tax base.” To combat this effect, the article proposes various TIF law reforms, most
significantly the addition of ”but for” tests that would prevent municipalities from defining an area
as ”blighted” unless it is unlikely to receive private investment.