Chicago and Cook County leaders who represent predominantly Latino neighborhoods are scrambling to help homeowners who saw huge increases in their property tax bills this year by proposing a hodgepodge of short- and long-term fixes that face a rocky path to approval.
Six of the seven Chicago neighborhoods with the largest percentage increases in property taxes are located in largely Latino areas on the Northwest and Southwest sides, according to an analysis published earlier this month by the Cook County Treasurer’s office. Weeks after being sworn into office, Cook County Commissioner Anthony Quezada is already seeing the impact, he said.
“We’ve had people come in who are beyond shocked — just completely blindsided” by their bills, some of which have doubled or more, Quezada said. “We’re talking about working-class people. We’re talking about seniors on fixed incomes who just can’t pay this.
“It’s just completely unacceptable,” he said.
Homeowners in Humboldt Park, which is partially inside Quezada’s district, saw on average a nearly 30% overall hike in residential property taxes this year, ranking it second among neighborhoods with the biggest increases. Nearby Avondale and Hermosa followed close behind.
The sticker shock was one reason why Quezada agreed to co-sponsor a resolution by Commissioner Alma Anaya designed to ease the burden. Anaya represents the Lower West Side area, which includes Pilsen, and where residential property tax increases outpaced the rest of the city with a staggering 44.7% jump this year. Neighboring South Lawndale ranked third behind Humboldt Park with a nearly 25% increase.
Anaya’s proposal would direct the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development to start a loan program for homeowners blindsided by tax hikes. The loan would equal the difference between each homeowner’s tax bill and the county’s average residential tax bill. Her proposal calls on the county to charge 3% annual interest — unless the homeowner stays in their home for 10 years, at which point the loan would be forgiven.
The resolution, which specified no funding source or eligibility criteria, was referred to the county Board of Commissioner’s Finance Committee for discussion of how such a program could take shape.
“Swift action is extremely important,” Anaya said last week at a news conference promoting her plan. “But most urgent is also looking at our partners at every level of government and figuring out how we can all pitch in to make sure our families are getting the relief they need.”
Her proposal accompanied a similar idea floated at the city level by Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd). Rodriguez introduced an ordinance to the City Council last week that would set aside $10 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds for forgivable loans to homeowners who earn less than 300% of the federal poverty level, or about $83,000 for a family of four.
Former Cook County Assessor James Houlihan noted last week in a news conference promoting the ordinance that he teamed up in the 1990s with Mayor Richard M. Daley to start a similar loan program. He said it “provided a solution, short term, for those residents who might have been driven from their neighborhoods.”
But last week, Lightfoot dismissed Rodriguez’s ordinance, telling reporters that $10 million is “not going to get the job done.” She said it would be up to state and county leaders to “come up with a proposal that addresses the issue.”
Another idea, also pitched by Anaya, would apply a new Cook County property tax exemption to low- and middle-income homeowners who live in designated historic districts. People who live in landmarked areas are seeing “even more substantial and unpredictable property tax increases” than most, according to the text of the proposal.
Anaya’s proposed Historic District Preservation Exemption ordinance would cap growth in property assessments for people who live in a historic district and who earn less than 115% of area median income or about $105,000 for a family of four.
Her ordinance points to precedents like the county’s Historic Residence Property Tax Assessment Freeze Program, which suppresses assessment growth for homeowners who renovate, and the Cook County Longtime Homeowner Exemption Ordinance for people who have lived in their homes for 10 years or more.
Elizabeth Blasius, an architectural historian and co-founder of the building preservation group Preservation Futures, said Anaya is right to target the relief toward homeowners in historic districts.
“There’s very little incentive for owners of historic or vintage homes just to keep their properties maintained,” Blasius said. “Whatever folks save on their property taxes would go toward general maintenance, which is a big part of the cost that a lot of people are suffering under.”
State and county leaders have tried before to legislate a muzzle onto residential tax assessment growth, with mixed effect.
Thanks in part to lobbying from Houlihan, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law in 2004 to prevent assessors from raising the equalized assessed values of most homes by more than 7%. But the policy, known as the “7% solution,” was phased out starting in 2009 amid an outcry from commercial property owners who were bearing the tax burden that homeowners were being spared.
Others have since floated various plans to cap assessments, most recently when Nico Tsatsoulis, the Libertarian candidate who took on Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi in November, called to limit assessment growth to 2% annually. Kaegi has consistently spoken out against caps on assessments, saying they would limit the county’s ability to correct for historic commercial underassessments that unfairly shifted the burden onto residential taxpayers.
Instead, the assessor often points to Springfield as the only place where true property tax relief can be delivered. He was backed up last week by his predecessor Houlihan, who said the “long-term solution is to [make] education less reliant on property taxes” by diverting more sales tax revenues to schools.
Quezada similarly said the county’s “unstable property tax system” is in need of “comprehensive reform at the state level.”
He noted that the reasons for property tax hikes are myriad, from municipalities that ceaselessly pump up their levies to wealthy business owners who score assessment breaks at the expense of neighboring homeowners.
“I think we need to develop a real comprehensive response to this,” Quezada said. “Because this is clearly not sustainable for our neighborhoods.”
Anaya did not respond to a request for comment. Kaegi declined to comment on Anaya’s exemption proposal.
Reporting on equity issues by the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, president of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.