Tucked on the outer edges of southern Cook County, suburban Park Forest was built to help answer a housing shortage in the 1940s as GIs flooded home from World War II. Before long, it became a model of suburban living, featuring enviable public schools and an attractive downtown shopping center anchored by a Marshall Field’s.
Today, the legacy department store is long gone. The high school, Rich East, is facing such low enrollment that it is being considered for closure. And, as of 2017, financially strapped homeowners were stuck with the second-highest property-tax rate in Cook County.
Among them is Ryan Dupée, who is being billed more than $3,800 in property taxes for a modest, ranch-style home he and his wife bought under foreclosure four years ago for just $25,000.
“It’s a shocker and it’s disappointing because your money could go to other things,” Dupée said, adding that while they aren’t paying a mortgage the property taxes are difficult for them to handle, especially since he’s between full-time jobs as a quality assurance auditor.
Throughout Cook County, once-prosperous suburbs such as Park Forest have fallen into a familiar pattern of decline amid collapsing property values and skyrocketing property taxes to pay for schools, police and fire protection.
Decades in the making, that upside-down scenario is one of a number of challenges that contributes to the overarching housing stresses afflicting the Chicago region.
In suburbs such as Park Forest and many others, the phenomenon is the result of years of business disinvestment, globalization and strained municipal finances that some experts say might require state assistance.
Michael Pagano, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said many of those suburbs are now relying almost entirely on lower-income homeowners to shoulder the enormous tax burden to fund essential government services.
“If you rely only on poor people to provide funding for services, no matter what instrument you have it will be punishing to poor people,” Pagano said.
Last year, the Better Government Association analyzed this trend through the lens of one town, south suburban Dolton, a once-vibrant suburb that in the past two decades has fallen on hard times. A BGA analysis of current tax data shows that 18 of the top 20 highest-property tax rates in Cook County are located in the south suburbs and are paired with some of the lowest property values.
Still, the phenomenon of disinvestment extends to other parts of the Chicago region, including west suburban Maywood, Bellwood and Cicero.
Underpinning this fiscal quagmire is the deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s, wreaking havoc on steel and other manufacturing industries throughout the Midwest and locally in south Chicago and nearby suburbs. Still vulnerable from the changing economy, these same areas were walloped a decade ago by the Great Recession, which caused household incomes and median home values nationwide to plummet.
Nationally, the median value of mortgaged homes rose again by nearly 4% from 2009 through 2017, according to census estimates. But in Cook County, median home values declined by nearly 12% during the same time period. All but ten of the county’s 135 cities, towns and villages saw a decrease in median value.
“What has not happened is a rebound, especially across the low- and moderate-income neighbors, a rebound in housing prices that would reflect growth income and the ability to afford a more expensive home or afford a property tax liability for that home,” Pagano said.
Take Riverdale, for example. The quiet suburb on Chicago’s southern border was once home to the Acme Steel plant that employed as many as 1,000 workers but is now mostly bereft of high-paying jobs and businesses.
From 2009 to 2017, median household income in Riverdale fell by more than 21 percent, the fifth-steepest decline in Cook County. Property values fell by 31 percent and homeowners in 2017 paid the third-highest property tax rate in the county. That is nearly four times as much as the average property tax rate right across the border in Chicago.
Loleta Gray, 62, lives in a single-story brick home in Riverdale that her daughter purchased for her out of foreclosure four years ago for $25,000. As part of their deal, Gray, who says she lives on a fixed income, pays the property taxes. Her property tax rate is 31 percent and she owes more than $5,900 for the 2018 tax year, due this year.
“I’m ready to move if it doesn’t come down because it’s ridiculous,” Gray said.
As these suburbs struggle financially, they also lose residents looking for better opportunities, which results in an unstable property tax base.
But experts say local and state government can help stem the inequities in these towns.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has suggested the state could reform its tax system to lessen the gulf in municipal funding and allow individual towns to support its own mix of business and residential land uses.
Lindsay Hollander, a senior policy analyst with the organization, recommended phasing out the difference in tax rates at the county level between residential properties and commercial and industrial properties.
“So it allows additional economic development to come in and improve the tax base so not all of that burden is shifted back onto the residents,” Hollander said.
The South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, a group that represents the government interests of the southland, is supporting legislation in the General Assembly that would drastically reduce the tax obligations for economically depressed areas.
The “Southland Reactivation Act,” stalled in a state House committee, would for tax purposes reduce the fair cash value of select properties in the townships of Bremen, Bloom, Calumet, Rich, Thornton, and Worth by two-thirds for up to a dozen years. Once the properties are back on the tax rolls and certified by the municipality, the properties’ tax liability would be limited to $75,000 a year for the first three years.
Kristi DeLaurentiis, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said she hopes to revisit the bill as early as the veto session in the fall.
“I think we have long had a challenge with the changing economy over time,” DeLaurentiis said. “What we have been focused on is ‘how do we create a future for ourselves, what’s the new market going to be?’”