In 1905 Elizabeth Frendreis's grandfather bought the two-flat on Nelson Street in Lakeview in which she now lives. Last month she got a property reassessment notice from the county that made her wonder whether she'll be able to stay. "My reassessment was 70 percent higher than it was last time," she says. "Last time it was 72 percent higher than the time before. Each time my taxes go up. I can't afford this. Are they trying to drive me out of my home where I've lived my whole life?"
Frendreis's dismay is being echoed in neighborhoods all over the north side as reassessment notices get delivered. "People are paying more than ever in taxes," says Barbara Monson, another north-side resident. "I think people have to wake up."
Frendreis, Monson, and Barbara Head, a north-side real estate agent, recently formed the Tax Reform Action Coalition, and they're calling on local politicians to freeze property taxes at their 2000 level. "People can't be afraid to dissent and speak up," says Monson. "It's the dissenters in this country who made things better."
This is hardly the first group of people to be up in arms over soaring taxes. But TRAC isn't the usual band of we-hate-taxes Libertarians and Republicans. Its members have no party affiliations, and they're not so much against government as against the way it's funded. As they see it, the property tax is fundamentally unfair because it doesn't take into account the ability of a home owner to pay it.
Property taxes are calculated under a complicated system by the office of the county assessor, Jim Houlihan. "Property gets reassessed every three years," says Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for the office. "Last year it was the south and southwest suburban townships that were reassessed. This year it's the city. And next year it will be the north and northwest suburbs." To determine a property's value, she says, "our office will drive through an area, note any changes--if it's an area with a lot of renovations. We'll get a feel for an area. We compare property to other homes sold in the area. It's a massive undertaking. There are about 1.6 million parcels of property in the county."
Reassessment notices have been sent to north-side property owners over the past few months; the south and west sides will get their notices later in the year. The notices sent so far clearly show that real estate is still booming on the north side.
Frendreis inherited her two-flat from her mother, who'd bought it from her siblings after Frendreis's grandfather died in 1954. "My grandfather had a shoe repair shop in the basement," she says. "He was a widower from Luxembourg with six children. My grandmother was his housekeeper. The priest from Saint Michael's said, 'You can't have an unmarried woman in the same house,' so they got married and had two children."
One of those children was Frendreis's mother. "We all went to the local parish school, Saint Alphonsus--my parents, me, my brother, my children," she says. "We stayed here even when it wasn't such a great neighborhood in the 70s. We kept up our investment. We didn't run."
In the early 1980s she watched the neighborhood begin to change as young professionals moved in. She always saw the boom as a source of amusement, not economic fortune, though the assessed value of her house went from $168,000 in 1997 to $225,000 in 2000 to $322,725 this year. That value is, as she puts it, "just a number on a piece of paper--of use only if I want to sell. And I don't want to sell."
Frendreis, now a 62-year-old retiree on a fixed income, may not be making anything off the real estate boom, but she's paying for it anyway. "My tax bill in 2000 was about $5,900," she says. "With the reassessment it will go up to $8,635. That's a lot of money. This is your basic two-flat frame. There's nothing fancy about this. I was listening to [Channel 11's] Bob Sirott one night. He had Houlihan on. Houlihan said the city's being 'revitalized.' That's what he called it--revitalized. Well, I had to laugh. How much revitalization can we stand? My property hasn't revitalized. My brother lives on the first floor, so we have no rents to raise. My brother's 65. This is where we want to stay."
She says she can't understand why city and county officials don't see what's happening to longtime owners. At a recent meeting she heard a young mayoral aide say, "'You should be happy your property is worth so much money.' He doesn't understand. We don't want to sell."
She knows it would be easy to sell. "We get real estate types and developers coming by all the time," she says. "They say they want our property--they'll give us whatever to knock our building down. It's still here and they want to knock it down. Classy, huh?"
Frendreis's story isn't unique. "My assessment went up 119 percent in this last assessment, which is absurd," says Bob Schiltz, another retiree who lives on Nelson, in a two-flat with a frame coach house in the back. "These are tiny places. My sister lives in the first-floor front, and my wife's children live in the [coach house] apartment. They're telling us this property's worth $421,000. It's ridiculous."
At a recent meeting in West Ravenswood sponsored by 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, dozens of seniors angrily brandished reassessment notices, saying they would probably be forced to move. "You hear these people and it breaks your heart," says Head. "On one level it's wonderful to see the city prosper like this. But the taxes will slow down the appreciation which is funding the government--the real estate goose that laid the golden egg is getting fried."
The problem isn't new, yet the city and county continue to rely on the property tax. It helped finance much of the city's construction over the last decade, and according to a recently published guide to municipal funding put out by the League of Women Voters of Chicago, it's also being used to repay the city's massive debt and contribute to the city's pension funds. The tax also pays for the city's schools and parks and much of the county's government. "We have one of the most regressive tax systems in the country," says Edna Pardo, who wrote the league's guide. "Our state income tax rate is low, and it's progressive. So of course the city and the county have to rely on the property tax."
Local dependence on property taxes will probably grow even more because of President Bush's federal tax cuts and the rise in spending to pay for the war in Iraq. "The less money the federal government has for cities like Chicago, the more we use the property tax," says Pardo. "There's a local consequence for these policies."
"For every dollar they cut in federal taxes it seems we pay two more on the local level," says Monson. "People here have to educate themselves. We're too easily fooled. For instance, they give us a $400 tax cut--and then they raise our property taxes $2,000 or whatever."
A spokesman for the city's budget department argues that it's not fair to say property taxes have gone up in the last few years, because the property tax rate hasn't been raised. But then there's been no need to raise the rate given how much more skyrocketing assessments have brought in.
At the moment few politicians have any stomach for changing the local tax system, perhaps because they remember what happened to the last politician who wanted to. In 1994 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch proposed that the state freeze property taxes and raise the state income tax. Her Republican opponent, Governor Jim Edgar, mocked her as a tax-and-spend liberal and swamped her at the polls. Many Democrats apparently learned a lesson from Netsch's campaign. When Rod Blagojevich ran for governor last fall he promised to balance the budget without raising taxes, even in the face of federal budget cuts and an economic slowdown. He won, but it's doubtful he'll be able to pull the state out of its budget crisis without increasing taxes.
At 6 PM on Thursday, August 14, Monson, Head, Frendreis, and their allies will gather at 1851 N. Clark Street for a protest they're calling the Chicago Tea Party. "This is the 230th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, so what a great way to celebrate," says Head. "It turns out that David Kennison, who was the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party, is commemorated at this monument in the park just across the street. Everyone's welcome. We're looking for a big crowd."
Head also hopes Mayor Daley will support TRAC's proposal to abolish this year's reassessment, in effect to freeze taxes where they were three years ago. "We are going to ask our mayor to use his considerable influence to repeal this triennial reassessment," she says, "and to become the leader on reforming the property tax."
That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. In July, Daley released a preliminary 2004 budget that predicted a $116 million deficit unless new monies were found. Among his proposed solutions--along with cutting salaries and laying off workers--was raising property taxes. "You don't know," he told reporters at a City Hall press conference on August 5. "That would be the last resort. This is a very challenging economy."
TRAC activists also have plans to take their case to Springfield, where they'll lobby in favor of state senator Miguel del Valle's plan to resurrect Netsch's idea of swapping a freeze in property taxes for a rise in the state income tax. "There are all sorts of interesting plans out there, and we're open to most of them," says Head. "What we want is a seat at the table when the changes are made. Home owners and renters should not allow themselves to be ignored. It's too important. We have to get involved."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.