New Property Tax Hike Raises Old Concerns

A new property tax hike for Chicago homeowners is reviving concerns about the way Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios and his office valued homes. To many Chicago homeowners, the property tax seems specifically designed to benefit the rich and burden the poor.

While the 10% increase in property tax has long been expected, it is still sending waves through the Chicago and Cook County Community. Both the city of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools District recently increased levies as part of a multiyear plan to ease shortfalls in worker pension programs, among other issues.

The Chicagoland suburbs will also be seeing an increase in their property taxes, though the hike there is less aggressive — 6.5% in North suburbs and 3.9% in South suburbs.

The value of a home is typically determined by calculating its market value, factoring in things like the current real estate market and any recent renovations (landscaping improvements alone can raise a home’s market value by 14%). However, a long-term analysis by the Chicago Tribune has revealed that the county assessor’s flawed approach to valuing property has created a divide between homeowners in economically prosperous (and typically white) neighborhoods and lower income neighborhood and minority communities.

The inaccuracies, the analysis concludes, are the result of outdated and highly subjective assessing practices that are out of sync with industry standards, including an over-reliance on hand checks, in which an assessor manually adjusts individual property values. This can result in wildly nonuniform valuation.

The reason for which, according to Cook County’s deputy assessor for valuation and appeals, Thomas Jaconetty, was math, or rather the average man’s aversion to it.

In an interview with the Tribune, Jaconetty posed the question, “Would they be as concerned about their assessments being based purely on math and driven by equations? Or would they feel better knowing there was a human being involved?”

It stands to reason, however, that the vast number of homeowners paying disproportionately high property taxes, especially those with fewer financial resources, would prefer a system that was both accurate and not prone to human prejudices or errors.

Take, for instance, Barbara Garner, a Melrose Park area widow. In 2010, she decided to downsize from her 2,000 square foot, four-bedroom, two story home for a single story home with less than 800 square feet built just after World War II.

Most people downsizing to older homes already face a significantly higher cost of maintenance than those who can afford to downsize to newer properties. For instance, the Electrical Safety Foundation International recommends that anyone purchasing a home 40 years or older should pay for a professional inspection for possible hazards.

Traditionally, such costs would be mitigated when downsizing by the reduction in property taxes. But for Garner the new tax bill was almost the same as the price for her previous home, nearly $4,000 a year, despite the difference in size.

The reason? The assessor, a human, had valued the house at more than twice what Garner had actually bought the house for, claiming the property was valued at $164,640 instead of the $75,000 Garner paid.

“I blew a gasket,” Garner said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I moved here to save money but instead I was paying the same amount in taxes.”

While many politicians are already voicing their opposition to the tax hikes, Cook County Clerk David Orr has taken criticisms a step farther, attacking not only the recent increase, but property taxes as well.

In the 2016 Tax Rate Report from his office, Orr is quoted saying: “property taxes are inherently regressive and disproportionately impact people in poorer regions. The overreliance on this mechanism of funding local government compounds existing inequities.”