Communities of color in Cook County have been burdened by residential discrimination for decades—from Federal Housing Administration redlining beginning in the 1930s, to racial steering by the Chicago Housing Authority.
Today, residents face a less visible method of housing discrimination: racially biased property tax assessment.
Two community organizations, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, filed suit in December against Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios. Their lawsuit alleges that Berrios’ office “systematically and illegally shifts residential property tax burdens” from white residents to Latino and African-American residents, and from the rich to the poor.
Both organizations are GO Grant recipients of The Chicago Community Trust, as is Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, whose attorneys are representing them in the action.
Property owners in majority-Latino and majority-African-American neighborhoods are twice as likely to be over-assessed—by a rate of 20% or more above market value—when compared with majority-white neighborhoods, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint further alleges that as the percentage of white residents in a census tract increases, the ratio between the assessed values and actual market values decreases.
“It is fundamentally unfair that families in this community are required to pay artificially inflated taxes for their homes and bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden in Cook County,” said Patrick Brosnan of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
On February 15, an independent report commissioned by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle confirmed the inequities, finding “that the residential assessment system is more variable and more regressive than agreed upon industry standards, causing a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”
According to the complaint, 46% of residential properties sold between 2011 and 2015 in Brighton Park, on Chicago’s southwest side, were over-assessed by at least 20%. 7% of residential properties were assessed at more than double their market value.
The Cook County Assessor’s office does not disclose its assessment methodology to the public.
“What we see in this case is the perpetuation of a system that disproportionately impacts communities of color and continues to strip capital from already struggling neighborhoods,” said Aneel Chablani of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
“It’s the same type of institutional racism that gave rise to Chicago’s extreme housing segregation through racial steering, discriminatory zoning and restrictive covenants.”
The complaint asks the court to declare the current assessment system unlawful, and to order Berrios’ office to adopt a fair, accurate, transparent and nondiscriminatory system. It also seeks the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the implementation.
Properties in Hermosa were over-assessed by an average of 24%. In contrast, properties in the predominantly white Lakeview neighborhood were 11% under-assessed on average.
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association serves an area of the northwest side that includes Hermosa, a predominantly Latino neighborhood—and the third most over-assessed neighborhood in the county.
Data from homes sold between 2011 and 2015 shows that properties in Hermosa were over-assessed by an average of 24%. After homeowner appeals, the neighborhood was over-assessed by an average of 23.5%.
In contrast, properties in the predominantly white Lakeview neighborhood were 11% under-assessed on average before appeals, and 15% under-assessed on average after appeals.
“What I find so dishonest and unfair is that if you’re a property owner just looking at your own tax bill, there’s no way to tell that you’re being under-charged or over-taxed based on the demographics of your neighborhood,” said Nancy Aardema of Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
“That’s why this outrage has gone on for so long.”