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Illinoisans face highest state, local taxes in United States

| Photo courtesy of Illinois Policy

Illinois now levies the nation’s highest state and local tax rates on residents, costing each household $9,488 – or more than 15% of their annual income – in 2022, a new WalletHub report found.

That tax load is nearly 39% more annually than the nation’s average.

The study also found Illinois state and local governments levy the nation’s second-highest gas taxes and second-highest effective property taxes on residents.

Despite being asked to pay more than anyone else, the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension debt eats dollars that should be spent on improvements to public services – the things residents expect their taxes to be used for. Illinoisans are left watching their tax bills climb while their tax dollars are diverted to cover $219 billion in pension promises made by politicians.

Illinois’ No. 2 in the nation property taxes illustrate the issue.

When cities and towns face dangerously high pension costs, they are forced to raise property taxes to cover shortfalls on debt payments. As a result, residents pay more in taxes towards past government services but don’t see benefits from current government services. They are more likely to see cuts to services as the old pension debts consume the new taxes. This often forces low-income families out of home ownership, or out of the state altogether.

In the state capital of Springfield, 112% of property taxes go towards public pensions. Each household would have to pay $38,813 to eliminate all state and local pension debt. This average pension debt is even higher in nine other large municipalities, highlighting the pervasiveness of the state’s pension crisis.

Land Bank of Cook County vs Cook County Treasuer

Cook County’s Scavenger Sale Is Meant To Fix Blighted Properties — But Advocates Say It Needs To Help Everyday Buyers, Not Hedge Funds

Officials have made changes to the sale, hoping to make it more accessible to everyday people. But opinions are split on how the sale can better benefit smaller investors while allowing properties to get redeveloped.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority redeveloped a once-vacant home at 3838 W. Adams St.

DOWNTOWN — Nearly 1,000 people gathered at this year’s Scavenger Sale auction, aiming to nab one of the more than 30,000 local properties up for sale.

The sale is the first step in a complicated process of trying to take over a tax-delinquent property so it can be restored, benefitting its community while returning it to the tax rolls. But many of the lots that go up are snapped up by hedge funds and large institutional buyers, or they stay unused for years, if not decades, while going through the sale again and again.

Officials have made changes to the process, hoping to make the auction more accessible to everyday people. But opinions are split on how the sale can better benefit smaller investors in the future while allowing properties to get redeveloped.

“Why should the scavenger sale property just go into a general pot and then be opened up to the fastest, most aggressive, most well-resourced bidder who gets to the starting line first?” said Michael Davidson, a senior director at the Chicago Community Trust who has worked to make the auction more accessible. “Is there a more equitable way of dealing with properties?”

The sale is “potentially good” because it allows people to buy who might not normally be able to participate, said Myra Penny, a real estate investor who has used the sale since 2017. Penny’s firm plans to develop empty South Shore and Austin lots acquired at the sale.

“Because the amount of money that people would typically need to purchase a property on the market, the Scavenger Sale allows everyday people to buy several properties for a smaller amount,” Penny said.

In practice, few properties make it off the list, with most cycling through the Scavenger Sale for years. If a parcel doesn’t sell in 20 years, it’s forfeited to the state.

In the meantime, the property can be an unused blight on the neighborhood. The majority of such lots are in communities of color that already suffer from disinvestment.

It’s “intolerable” that some properties sit on the list for decades, said Bridget Gainer, a Cook County commissioner and Cook County Land Bank Authority chairwoman.

“Whole neighborhoods are held hostage by the fact that they have to live with vacant housing,” Gainer said.

Changing The Scavenger Sale

The properties up for auction at the Scavenger Sale have severely delinquent taxes. The Treasurer’s Office uses the sale — which has happened every other year since the ’40s — to find new owners for the properties in hopes of getting them back on the tax rolls. The person who places the highest bid is entitled to a tax lien on the property; they must then complete a series of steps to own the deed to the property.

But companies and big investors snap up properties at the auction, leaving out smaller investors. And many properties cycle through the sale again and again, sitting vacant or with unpaid taxes.

Opinions differ on how to change the sale to better benefit smaller investors and communities where the lots are located.

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas made it cheaper to participate: In prior years, people who wanted to participate in the sale had to pay a $250 fee to get a hard copy of the enormous spreadsheet that shows which properties would be available. This year, it was available for free with an interactive map on the the Cook County Treasurer’s Office website.

While fewer than than 200 people on average registered for the sale in the past, more than 900 people registered for this year’s sale, which was held over two weeks at the end of February.

This year, the sale was held in person at Navy Pier. Participants waited for hours while paying close attention so they wouldn’t miss the property they wanted to bid on.

The standard starting bid on the properties was $250, but some went for tens of thousands — and a few saw bids go past $100,000.

Steven Vance, an urban planner and founder and CEO of real estate database Chicago Cityscape, said he saw two bidders who waited for hours — only to quickly lose when the property they were interested in came up.

“They just sat there for hours to get nothing,” Vance said.

The next time the sale is held, in 2024, it’ll be done all online. Some housing advocates have said they fear that will make it easier for hedge funds and investment corporations to cash in on homeowner woes.

But Vance and Davidson said holding the auction online could level the playing field.

“If it’s done well and if it remains accessible, it sounds to me like it brings enormous efficiency to a process that seems like it’s operating in the Dark Ages,” Vance said.

This year, Vance and Davidson developed a Zillow-like tool so people could see what’d be up for sale at the auction, hoping that’d help smaller buyers.

“The Scavenger Sale is really not working effectively from a community development point of view for the residents of Cook County,” Davidson said. “I think [the way it is now] weeds out the mom-and-pops and the community scale developers. The only participants who have the wherewithal and the time to participate under those conditions are these large institutional purchasers.”

Davidson said he hopes there will be a way for community organizations to get priority consideration in the future.

Anton Seals, lead steward of Grow Greater Englewood and a co-founder of the Englewood Community Land Trust, said the issue with the way the system works now is “investors come in and try to take advantage of the depressed value of real estate, but neighborhoods with a lot of Scavenger Sale parcels are the product of failed public policies,” like the legacies of contract lending, redlining and unequal tax assessment.

More creative solutions, like using land banks that redevelop abandoned properties, are needed to address this issue, Seals said.

But that idea is contentious: County Treasurer Pappas said government entities like the Cook County Land Bank Authority get an unfair advantage over private bidders since they can place no-cash bids on properties at the Scavenger Sale. For a private bidder to win over the land bank, they have to pay the entire amount of delinquent taxes due on a property plus $100, Pappas said.

“Why should the Land Bank have this much of an upper hand?” Pappas said.

Throughout the auction, Pappas handed out surveys asking bidders if a property they wanted to bid on was taken by the Land Bank. The Treasure’s Office will use that data to lobby for change in Springfield and in the county, she said.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority acquires vacant and abandoned properties, helping to redevelop them to stabilize neighborhoods and stimulate the local economy.

The authority is “really just a hack for a broken system,” Gainer said.

In 2015, the Cook County Land Bank Authority made the Scavenger Sale its primary means of acquiring properties, scooping up about 27,000 parcels of the approximately 96,000 cumulative properties since then. It’s returned more than 9,000 of those properties onto the county rolls — only to re-acquire 353 of those properties again, according to the Treasurer’s Office.

The result has been to deprive private bidders of the opportunity to nab the properties themselves, Pappas said.

But Gainer said there’s several reasons why that happens, including times when the authority has let go of properties if it finds out someone lives there.

“One of the myths that the land bank was able to dispel is that the reason why so many properties sit on the scavenger sale is because there’s no market for them,” Gainer said. “We’ve proven 1,000 times over that there’s a market in these communities.”

One of the issues with that system is that the government has “made the wall too high” for people who buy at the scavenger sale to actually acquire the property, Gainer said. A bidder has to wait two and a half years before they can get the title to the deed, and the process involves dozens of steps, including appraisals, inspections and court appearances.

In mid-February, the Land Bank celebrated its 1,000th renovated home. The Garfield Park house, once abandoned and vacant for years, was made over by a developer who partners with the land bank.

“We’ve proven that the work can be done by local developers,” Gainer said. “You don’t need to be subsidized. You don’t need any kind of special care in bidding. What you need to do is make the process actually workable.”

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List of Endangered Architectural Gems in Chicago

Promontory Point makes Preservation Chicago’s annual ‘most endangered’ list

“Today, the historic revetment at Promontory Point is all that is left of a once eight-mile-long stretch of beautiful limestone transitions between nature and the city,” Preservation Chicago said.

Promontory Point, an artificially created peninsula located between 54th and 56th Streets along the city’s lakefront, made the Preservation Chicago’s annual ‘Chicago 7 Most Endangered.’
Promontory Point, an artificially created peninsula located between 54th and 56th Streets along the city’s lakefront, made the Preservation Chicago’s annual ‘Chicago 7 Most Endangered.’

Eric Allix Rogers for Preservation Chicago

Promontory Point, one of the most beloved spots on the south shoreline of Lake Michigan, has been named to Preservation Chicago’s annual “most endangered” list.

The peninsula in Burnham Park is among eight historic buildings or public assets that made the list. It’s usually a list of seven, but the group threw in an additional site this year.

Built 84 years ago between 54th and 56th streets, Promontory Point’s revetment — limestone slabs forming giant steps along the water — has deteriorated over the years, thanks to rising waters and natural decay.

Now, Preservation Chicago contends, the city and Chicago Park District plan to tear out the limestone and replace it with concrete slabs, “destroying not only the historic stepstone revetment, but also the naturalistic aesthetic of this Alfred Caldwell-designed park,” Preservation Chicago said in its report. “This irreversible alteration will adversely affect the open and diverse community culture that has thrived for decades at Promontory Point, moving this historic site further away from its original design and setting a precedent for future unsympathetic alterations.”

Caldwell was an architect with the Chicago Park District and designed the landscape plan for Promontory Point.

According to the preservation group, the city has a history of replacing limestone along the lakefront with massive concrete and steel structures — everywhere except The Point.

The limestone revetment at Promontory Point in Burnham Park is decaying and needs protection, according to Preservation Chicago, which put the site on its “most endangered” list.
The limestone revetment at Promontory Point in Burnham Park is decaying and needs protection, according to Preservation Chicago, which put the site on its “most endangered” list.

Sun-Times file

“Today, the historic revetment at Promontory Point is all that is left of a once eight-mile-long stretch of beautiful limestone transitions between nature and the city,” Preservation Chicago said.

Preservation Chicago said despite its age, the revetment continues to protect the parkland behind it from the harsh waves of Lake Michigan, though major repairs are needed.

The advocacy group has recommended the city and Chicago Park District designate The Point as a Chicago landmark, making it nearly impossible for it to be demolished.

Preservation Chicago has made its list every year since 2003 to call attention to the risk facing not-yet-classified landmarks and what it would mean to lose such historic structures.

“It’s a somber time as we spotlight these remarkable endangered structures which cover so much area of the city,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “The threats to our historic built environment are all across Chicago, but we have hope for our city that these places can be reused, repurposed and protected, making them a cornerstone to grow communities sensitively and holistically.”

Also on Preservation Chicago’s 2022 list:

Cabrini Row Houses, Lathrop Homes-South Campus and two non-residential buildings at Altgeld Gardens: The Chicago Housing Authority has demolished many of its buildings over the years, with the promise to attract more affordable housing — a promise not yet met, according to Preservation Chicago.

Instead, Preservation Chicago wants those parts of the Cabrini, Lathrop and Altgeld complexes restored and put back “into good use for the people.”

Cabrini Row Houses is made up of 586 units on 16 acres and has mostly fallen into disrepair. About 140 units have been restored but the vast majority have been left to deteriorate.
Cabrini Row Houses contains586 units on 16 acres and has mostly fallen into disrepair. About 140 units have been restored but the vast majority have been left to deteriorate.

Ward Miller for Preservation Chicago

St. Martin de Tours: The Gothic structure at 5848 S. Princeton, was designed by architect Henry J. Schlacks for a Catholic parish in Englewood that at the time had a predominantly German congregation..

As the neighborhood changed, it continued to thrive for years as a parish with a mostly Black congregation. But it closed in 1989 and since then has remained untouched and suffered significant deterioration.

St. Martin de Tours at 5848 S. Princeton is a striking Gothic structure that is in need of major repair to avoid demolition.
St. Martin de Tours at 5848 S. Princeton is a striking Gothic structure that is in need of major repair to avoid demolition.

Eric Allix Rogers for Preservation Chicago

Central Park Theater: Preservation Chicago said this building at 3535 W. Roosevelt Rd. has contributed significantly to the arts and culture of North Lawndale from the time it opened in 1917.

It has been the home of House of Prayer Church of God in Christ since 1971. But over the past five decades, it has deteriorated and the list of needed repairs has grown immensely as the churches congregation has dwindled.

The Central Park Theater was completed in 1917 and was a hub for arts and culture in North Lawndale and then became a house of worship in 1971.
The Central Park Theater was completed in 1917 and was a hub for arts and culture in North Lawndale and then became a house of worship in 1971.

Deborah Mercer for Preservation Chicago

Peterson Avenue Mid-century Modern District: This two-mile stretch from North Park to West Ridge hosts an ensemble of Mid-century Modern architecture.

However, many of those buildings along Peterson Avenue are under threat of demolition, and many others already have been torn down.

There are a slew of significant buildings along Peterson Avenue built in the Mid-century Modern style. A two-mile stretch featuring an assortment of such buildings that are under threat of demolition has made Preservation Chicago’s new ‘most endangered’ list.
There are a slew of significant buildings along Peterson Avenue built in the Mid-century Modern style. A two-mile stretch featuring an assortment of such buildings that are under threat of demolition has made Preservation Chicago’s new ‘most endangered’ list.

Preservation Chicago

The Century and Consumers buildings: The Century at 202 S. State St. and the Consumers at 220 S. State St. are in the heart of the Chicago Loop and in the city’s Central Business District.

Despite that prime location, they are suffering from both low occupancy rates, as well as years of deferred maintenance, causing concern for their future.

The site has made the list before.

Preservation Chicago called the Century “a rare example Neo-Manueline” architecture, a Portuguese style that influenced architecture in the Midwest. And the Consumers building (foreground in picture) is clad in white architectural terra cotta, made in Chicago.

The Century and Consumers Buildings located at 202 S. State St. and 220 S. State St. is located int he heart of The Loop but years of deferred maintenance is concerning.
The Century and Consumers Buildings located at 202 S. State St. and 220 S. State St. is located int he heart of The Loop but years of deferred maintenance is concerning.

Eric Allix Rogers for Preservation Chicago

North DuSable Lake Shore Drive: The once “slow-paced, boulevard parkway” has morphed into a quasi-highway that has gradually removed its aesthetic of being a road Chicagoans can use to enjoy the city’s beautiful lakefront, the preservation group contends.

To prevent that situation from getting any worse, Preservation Chicago recommends rebuilding bridges and underpasses. It also opposes any further widening of the road to add more lanes.

DuSable_NLSD_Eric_Allix_Rogers__1_.jpg
Preservation Chicago is calling for the city to not expand any lanes on North DuSable Lake Shore Drive but invest in rebuilding bridges and underpasses.

Eric Allix Rogers for Preservation Chicago

Moody Triangle: This site in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood is bounded by Clark Street, North Avenue, and LaSalle Drive.

In it are three buildings that Preservation Chicago believes are threatened by looming redevelopment around the campus of Moody Bible Institute: the Wintrust Bank building, 100 W. North Ave; Moody Memorial Church, 1635 N. LaSalle Dr.; and Archway Standard Station/BP Service Station, 1647 N. LaSalle Dr.

Moody Memorial Church, 1635 N. LaSalle Dr., is part of what Preservation Chicago is calling the “Moody Triangle.”
Moody Memorial Church, 1635 N. LaSalle Dr., is part of what Preservation Chicago is calling the “Moody Triangle.”

Sun-Times file

The swooping canopy at the BP station at North Avenue at LaSalle Street. The site, along with a nearby Wintrust bank and Moody Memorial Church, are on an endangered site Preservation Chicago calls “The Moody Triangle.”
The swooping canopy at the BP station at North Avenue at LaSalle Street. The site, along with a nearby Wintrust bank and Moody Memorial Church, are on an endangered site Preservation Chicago calls “The Moody Triangle.”

Ward Miller for Preservation Chicago

City of Chicago Pensions Need More Reforms

Adam Schuster

Senior Director of Budget and Tax Research

FEBRUARY 28, 2022

Chicago pension debt drove city property taxes up 164% before COVID-19

City property taxes rose 30% faster than in suburban Cook County from 2000 to 2019. Record inflation in 2022 will bring increases statewide in 2023.

Chicago property taxpayers were asked for 164% more in the 20 years before COVID-19 hit, but the hikes really escalated in 2015 and more pain is expected as inflation drives up local governments’ abilities to ask for more.

And they will ask for more, because massive pension debts are forcing them to.

As homeowners pay their first Cook County property tax installment on March 1, 2022, a look back at how Chicago got to this point should start in 2015. That’s when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel set off a $543 million property tax hike, with all that new money going toward pensions. It’s also when city residents started seeing taxes grow nearly 30% faster than suburban Cook County residents.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has continued Emanuel’s tax-hike legacy. The average Chicago property taxpayer paid $255 extra in 2021, when city residents were collectively asked for $94 million more. Then in 2022 the average was hiked another $180 for a grand total of $76.5 million in new money.

But the pensions keep consuming: $2.3 billion of the $16.7 billion city budget in 2022. That is every dollar from Chicago’s $1.7 billion property tax levy, and then some. Total pension costs equal 21.4% of the city’s own-source revenue.

Despite eating more, the pensions are in desperate shape and perhaps the worst of any in Illinois. The eight funds Chicago taxpayers are responsible for hold $46.9 billion in unfunded liabilities, more pension debt than 45 U.S. states.

Broken down, that is $43,995 per household. Add in the pension debt for the five statewide systems, and each Chicago household is responsible for eventually paying $81,679 per household beyond current tax collections.

Those outside Chicago also carry a heavy property tax load, and more is coming. Because of runaway inflation, 2022 will be the first year local governments subject to tax caps will be able to raise property taxes up to the maximum 5% allowed by law.

Still, more property taxes going to pensions has not prevented local governments from owing $75 billion in pension debt. The statewide average state and local pension debt per household is $45,151.

Combined with the more than $144 billion in debt officially reported by the five statewide pension systems

While the state reports an improvement to $139.9 billion in fiscal year 2021 after strong market returnsexperienced by nearly all large pension funds, Moody’s Investors Service in late September 2021 reported debt in the five state systems at $312.6 billion. Moody’s uses more accurate accounting methods similar to those required in the private sector.

Chicago residential property tax collections across all units of government in the city were up 164% from 2000 to 2019.

Property taxes paid by homeowners within the city grew nearly 30% faster than property taxes in suburban Cook County during those 20 years. Suburban residential property taxes grew 116% while total residential property tax collections county-wide grew 133%.

While some of Chicago’s increase was driven by new property or growth in existing property tax values, the average homeowner still saw an 85% increase in their bill from 2000 to 2019. Since the record-setting 2015 property tax hike to pay for pension debt, the average Chicago bill has risen 27%. Prior to that hike, property taxes were on a lower trend from 2011 to 2014.

In 2019, the average Chicago homeowner paid $3,342 in property taxes on an average home value of $258,000 for an effective rate of 1.3%.

Even though total tax extensions – the amount of taxes requested by government units in a taxing area – grew slower in the suburbs, the bill paid by the average residential homeowner grew faster than in Chicago during the 20 years at 95.6%. This indicates the suburbs saw slower growth in taxable property value.

Pension debt is also a leading cause of municipal property tax increases outside Chicago, where many medium- and large-size cities face similar challenges keeping up with unaffordable retirement benefit structures.

However, Chicago median residential property tax bills have grown faster than the suburbs since 2015. The average suburban bill has grown roughly a third as fast as in Chicago since the 2015 pension property tax hike, at just 9.6% compared to Chicago’s 27%.

In 2019, the average Cook County suburban homeowner paid $5,971 in property taxes on a home valued at $246,600 for an effective rate of 2.4%.

Commercial property taxes grew slower across the board from 2000 to 2019, at 81% within Chicago and 54% in the suburbs. That could change soon with new assessment procedures put in place by Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, which will cause business property taxes to rise faster.

Chicago’s pension spending is up nearly $1 billion just during the three years Lightfoot has been in office and nearly 500% since 2004 in nominal terms. Without significant reforms, it will continue to grow.

Because of restrictive legal interpretations of the Illinois pension clause, only a constitutional amendment can unlock meaningful reforms.

The Illinois Policy Institute has proposed a “hold harmless” constitutional amendment to allow for reductions in future benefit growth for current workers and retirees. It would still treat benefits earned for work already performed as an inviolable contract, but would clarify that adjustments can be made going forward to ensure pensions are sustainable and affordable.

Recent polling by the institute showed 61% of voters supported such an amendment, with broad bipartisan agreement. That represents enough support to pass at the ballot box, but first Springfield lawmakers must pass the amendment to give voters that chance.

Property taxpayers throughout Chicago and Cook County deserve the opportunity to vote on their best option for lasting relief.

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