Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

“Don’t go past the top of the curve.”

-Robert P. Inman, Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy, Wharton School

By: Mark Glennon*

Chicago’s south suburbs are in a death spiral and property taxes are central to the story. Most numbers reported to date have been spotty, though anecdotes are common about abandoned properties and underwater homeowners unable to sell because of property taxes.

This article collects the empirical data more comprehensively from a variety of sources, most of which have become available only recently. Rates, indeed, have surpassed what any rational person could defend. The numbers provide a stark warning to all communities that are heavily taxed. Other factors contributed to the decline of south suburbia, which I will touch on briefly. Unquestionably, however, crushing property taxes worked as a powerful accelerant and now are sealing the doom of most south suburbs.

cook_lg
The south suburban communities reviewed for this article are in Bremen, Thornton, Rich and Bloom Townships directly south of Chicago

 

For purposes here, by “south suburbs,” I mean municipalities in the four townships directly south of Chicago on the bottom right of the map to the left — Bremen, Rich, Thornton and Bloom Townships. They basically form a rectangle south of the city to the edge of Cook County, bounded by Indiana on the east and Cicero Avenue on the west.

I will focus on “effective property taxes,” which is simply the percentage annual taxes represent compared to the actual market value of a property. A $200,000 home with an annual tax bill of $10,000, for example, would have an effective rate of 5%. That’s the right way to look at taxes because it cuts through the complexity of equalization factors, nominal tax rates and  other numbers that usually obfuscate property tax discussions.

south suburbn rates
Source: Chicago Tribune database. http://www.chicagotribune.com/ct-compare-your-property-tax-rate-database-20151111-htmlstory.html

 

The Average Rates:

“Confiscatory” is not an exaggeration of some of the rates common in many of these communities. Rates now average 5.23% per year of a the market value of homes in south suburban communities, far more than mortgage interest which today would typically be no more than four percent for a 20%-down, fixed 30-year mortgage. Those tax rates are about 3.3 times higher than the national average effective property tax rate for homes (about 1.5%, in urban areas), as reported in this year’s annual report of Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. (Rural areas have lower rates.)

Commercial effective rates average 12.7% in the south suburbs, which is 5.7 times the national average for commercial properties, which is just under 2.3% in urban areas according to the Lincoln Institute study.

The chart on the right shows those rates by municipality in the south suburbs. They are drawn from a database recently prepared by the Chicago Tribune.

Those rates are far higher than most in Illinois, though Illinois itself has the second highest residential rates in the nation, averaging 2.32%, according to  the Tax Foundation. For Cook County as a whole, median effective rates are 3.5% for residential and 8.6% for commercial.

In Chicago, average rates are 1.86% and 4.74%, respectively, for residential and commercial, according to the Chicago Tribune’s data. With the new increases proposed, those rates would be 2.10% and 5.26%, according to the Tribune data.

All those rates may be low, however, because they rely on the tax assessor’s indication of true market value of properties. And, unquestionably, the variance even within individual towns is staggering. Browse through actual sales and tax history on properties in those communities yourself. That information is easy to find on Zillow and similar online sites. I have looked at dozens of them. Within a single community, it’s not hard to find some homes bearing an effective tax rate under 3% and others over 9%. That seeming arbitrariness is a different subject I won’t try to tackle here. Suffice it to say that how properties are assessed infuriates owners throughout the county. Unfairness and uncertainty about who will pay how much is an entirely different problem, and it’s severe.

The consequences:

What happens when property taxes rise to those levels? The answers should be obvious, but let’s look at some data.

First, property values have been ravaged. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, in August, published a study of regional home price performance. It’s particularly good because it focuses on same-home, matched pair data, so it avoids distortions in simple average sale prices.

Price Changes

The study’s conclusions are on the right. Highlighted in red are the two regions defined in the study that most closely match the south suburban definition I’m using here. Particularly striking is price performance since 2000. Cook County prices generally have recovered, a far different picture than in the south suburbs, where they have dropped severely. And keep in mind that the home price recovery for the whole Chicago area has badly lagged most other large cities in the nation.

Prices do seem to have stabilized in the past year, a recent trend that’s also reflected in assessed valuations published directly by the Cook County Clerk. If true, perhaps that’s no surprise. Arguably, prices are now so low that buyers have concluded that exceptionally high taxes don’t matter. The loss has already been suffered by previous owners, perhaps. Maybe that sentiment provides a floor. On the other hand, looking through actual sales and listing data certainly does not confirm that. Overwhelmingly, from what I have seen, that information shows an unbroken trend of dropped asking prices, lower actual sales prices and increased effective property tax rates.

Source: Franczek Radelet.

What about new construction and home improvements? Who would build or improve their property when the additional value they create will be taxed at those rates, and what does that mean for expansion of the tax base these suburbs sorely need?

Here, too, we have some new, interesting data. Franzek Radelet PC recently published a report separating out new property in assessed valuations, broken down by areas around Cook County. As seen in their chart on the right, new property valuations have recovered for Cook County as a whole since 2012 as construction resumed for all categories — residential, commercial and industrial properties.

But for Bloom, Bremen, Rich and Thornton Townships, there’s been no recovery, except a bit in Bremen. High rates appear to have ended growth of the property tax base. The charts below show total new property valuations in the four south suburban townships.

bloom new
Bloom Township. Source: Franczek Radelet.
Bremen Township. Source: Franczek Radelet.

 

 

 

Rich Township. Source: Franczek Radelet.
Rich Township. Source: Franczek Radelet
Thrornton Township. Source: Franczek Radelet.

 

 

 

 

A few particular communities:

The_Clock_Tower_Park_Forest_Shopping_Center_Park_Forest_IL(1)
Park Forest’s “Clock Tower” in its day

An especially sad victim is Park Forest. It was, in its day, the classic post World War II suburb with miles of nearly identical three bedroom, one bath homes built in the 1950s. It teemed with happy kids when I grew up there, every one of whom knew exactly what “meet me at the clock tower” meant: Ride your bike to the clock tower shown on the right in the Park Forest Plaza, a great place for a movie, lunch or whatever.

It was modest by any standard, then or now (which, in retrospect, is the best way to grow up), but it was safe, clean and proud to have enacted an open housing ordinance long before Federal civil rights legislation. Schools were quite good and property taxes were, as best as the old-timers I talk to remember, well under 1%.

But residential property taxes today average over 7% and any look at sales prices of homes shows a steady decline. Schools have deteriorated. Crime abounds. The clock tower is long gone.

Robbins may be the worst off of Chicago’s suburbs, based on a look at its real estate. A regular reader called me on a Sunday afternoon this past Summer. He was in Robbins for a baseball tournament with his daughter. “Good God,” he said, “this truly looks like some bombed out city after a war.” For Robbins, I couldn’t really get a sense of going prices and effective property tax rates by looking at sales data because almost all are foreclosures and abandoned properties.

Flossmoor, however, may be the keystone, and it has cracked. It’s among the prettiest and was long among the most prosperous towns in the state, filled with beautiful older homes and huge oak trees. Its high school, Homewood-Flossmoor, was traditionally among the best in Illinois. Today, Flossmoor is where many of those stories originate of owners trapped in their homes. Their values have sunk below mortgage balances and potential buyers balk at effective tax rates around 5%, often far higher. Many owners are stuck there. It’s seen as the last island of stability in the area, but it’s submerging.

Other Causes:

One of dozens of buildings in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, now gone

Suicidal property taxes are are both a symptom and a cause of the collapse of these suburbs, but other factors clearly contributed.

Manufacturing was traditionally concentrated in the south suburbs, so its decline hit them hardest. Recent data published by the Illinois Department of Employment Security show the total number of private sector jobs in south suburban Cook County down since 1996 by about 19,000 and declining even since the 2007 recession  — no post-recession job recovery.

 

Some blame the tear-down of the Robert Taylor Homes, a vast, low income, high rise housing project that lined the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s Southside. Many former residents are said to have taken Section 8 vouchers and moved to the south suburbs.

Finally, all these communities are crushed under impossible pension obligations. Aside from their share of multi billion-dollar unfunded liabilities for Cook County and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, most of these suburbs have their own police and fire pensions, which are in miserable shape. A few random examples: Chicago Heights firefighter pension is 48% funded with a $38 million unfunded liability; Cicero police pension is 49% funded and $62 million in the hole; and Country Club Hills firefighter pension is 54% and $5.8 million in the red. They have no hope ever to pay those pensions in full, being over-taxed so badly already.

Each of those factors eroded the tax base or made government more costly, pushing effective property rates up and making the rates themselves the most powerful source of further decline.

“Don’t go past the curve”- the lesson for Chicago and others:

Some other suburbs scattered through other Chicago areas have rates just as insane as in the south suburbs. Waukegan’s residential rate, for example, is 5.5% plunging it, too, into a death spiral. Riverside’s is 7.6%; Zion’s is 7.1%. Many others have rates heading upwards towards the irrational. For them, the warning should be clear.

For Chicago, the standard narrative in its debate about property taxes says they’re low compared to the suburbs. That’s certainly true, but should it mean anything? Suburban averages are pulled up by the rates I’ve described. Suburban averages also include high rates in prosperous communities willing to pay very stiff taxes for some of the best schools in the country. Even a huge tax hike will not allow Chicago to offer that. Most importantly, property taxes are a much smaller part of the total tax picture for Chicago than for other places in Illinois. Chicagoans pay more in taxes and fees, per person, than residents of any other major city in Illinois, as detailed by the Illinois Policy Institute. Look at the bigger picture when thinking about Chicago.

By “don’t go past the top of the curve,” Prof. Inman at the Wharton School of Finance was saying that, after a certain point, tax rates destroy a community and reduce tax collections. It’s the phrase he used in a presentation last year at the Chicago Federal Reserve. Economists debate where the top of the curve is, but ordinary people should know it when they see it, and it’s plain to see in Chicago’s south suburbs.

No easy solution is apparent to me for the south suburbs.

Don’t repeat their history.

The best that come from their plight is the warning they’ve given.

Update 11/29/15:

The audio of a radio interview I did on this article for AM560 is linked here.

The south suburbs are not alone. For effective rates in Chicago’s collar counties and other Cook County communities, see the further article I did today, linked here.

*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints. Opinions expressed are his own.

 

 

 

 

 

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

I have bought scores of cheap residential properties in the South Suburbs during the foreclosure crisis. Yes, I am overtaxed, but my basis in the properties is low. As an investor, I avoided some of the very challenged south suburbs, which are simply impoverished.

I am very concerned about the receding retail environment in some of these villages. I am shocked at the taxes some of the shopping center landlords have to pay. Their centers are not worth much based upon cash flow.

Mike
You can get a 4,000 square foot house in Country Club Hills and pay $24,000 annual property taxes. School districts are the biggest portion of the property tax bill. School Districts covering Country Club Hills are Prairie-Hills ESD 144, Country Club Hills SD 160, Rich Twp HSD 227, and Bremen CHSD 228. But the property tax bill only reflects part of the cost of operating schools, as schools receive various sources of state funding including but not limited to General State Aid (GSA), which would be largely funded by state income taxes. However the taxpayer funding attributed to public schools does not stop at property taxes and… Read more »
Mike

Regarding suicidal property tax rates in Country Club Hills.

Diane Rado of the Chicago Tribune wrote an April 16, 2016 article titled, “With help of lawmakers, Illinois public schools now $20 billion in debt.”

Prairie-Hills ESD 144 is an elementary school district which services parts of Country Club Hills, Markham, Hazel Crest, and Oak Forest.

The Chief School Business Official of Prairie Hills District 144 was asked about a school district exceeding its state imposed debt level.

“Nothing happens.”

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-illinois-school-debt-met-20160416-story.html

Mike
The County Club Hills home above has property taxes per home square foot of $6 (no factor for lot size). Based on $24,000 annual property taxes on a 4,000 square foot house. Compare that to Dwayne Wade’s house that is for sale in South Holland which has property taxes per home square foot at $7.44 (no factor for lot size). Which is based on $58,000 annual property tax bill on a 7,800 square foot house. The above is just another way to look at Illinois property taxes, in addition to the traditional property tax rate which can be calculated as a percentage of either market value or… Read more »
Patrick

Folks,
Several cities and the State of Illinois will never be able to pay those ridiculous and obscene pensions, and deliver government services at the same time.

The quicker cities are able to file bankruptcy and reform pensions, the better off the citizens will be.

As far as the State of Illinois filing bankruptcy, an act of congress is what’s needed.

Start lobbying your federal reps to pass a law allowing States to file bankruptcy.

It’s either bankruptcy, or Detroit II.

Take your pick.

Jim Walsh

I have lived in Flossmoor since 1954 and at that time Harvey, Chicago Heights and other local Townships enjoyed thousands of good paying jobs that are for the most part gone. Every other house in Flossmoor was owned by either a company president, officer or a private business owner. As a result, those barons of business did not want any smokestack or other commercial businesses near Flossmoor. Today we dearly need some major contributors to our tax rolls, however that is not going to happen.

Loved the article and how simply you established “effective property taxes.” GREAT JOB!

Suburban Homeowner
I live in Will County, in Crete, just south the communities you list. It is the same here. I have a modest 2300 sf house and pay $9,200 in property taxes. Worse yet there have been no new homes built in 7 years and new job growth is stagnant. To make matters worse the schools are rated low and that does not attract new families. Our school district (Crete Monee 201u) is planning on taking on new debt while not addressing their deficit spending. They seem to think building new schools is a replacement for quality education but all that is doing is attracting out of area… Read more »
jozef
Sorry I’m late to the comments, but I wanted to determine out how to define “The Top of the Curve”. This is the theoretical point where the housing market collapses due to excessive property taxes. It’s potentially useful in determining when other suburbs’ housing markets might also collapse. Here’s how I’ve believe it can be defined: When the curve of “the rate of home value destruction due to property tax increases” + “the effectiveness of property tax increases on tax revenue” inflects, the market starts to collapse. The equation is when (dM/Mo) + (dR/dt)/(dR/dto) starts to go up. I’ve run three conditions that might represent the housing… Read more »
mark glennon

I’m far too rusty to second guess your formula, but I would have guessed it would be lower than that. It would depend, of course, on prevailing rates and nearby competing property tax rates. In the south suburbs its so easy to move not far away — to Indiana — and get prop tax rates less than 1%. You’ll find economists all over the place on this but I think it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it thing for the common person.

South sider

Thank you for this article. I live on Olympia Fields and purchased my house in 2005 at the height of the market and the bottom has fallen out and many good families are stuck because thier houses are undewater. Our elected officicals are alot to blame. After elementary school our schiool districts are questionable. Businesses are leaving because of high taxes. Some of the politicians spend without any resolve. I just don;t understand why we continue to elect the same people when they have led us over this cliff
.

Suburban Homeowner
The number one culprit is the school district. In my township (Crete) the schools account for over 65% of every tax dollar. Even if the local municipality is conservative if the school district does not balance their budget it causes a downward spiral. To compound the problem their liberal policies of borrowing and adding more programs have attracted out of district kids. Across the boarder in Indiana (Dyer, St. John, Crown Point) they monitor and prohibit transfers (from Gary and Hammond) that register to escape their ghetto schools. If they really believed their outcry “it’s for the kids” were really true they would concentrate on increasing the… Read more »

Great article, Mr. Glennon – Thanks for taking time to look into the issue and write about it. As a longtime resident in Bremen Township, there’s nowhere to find this type of information about what’s going on with the property taxes here – no one in the area wants to publicize it. Thanks again.

DonnaB
The loss of commercial business & manufacturing in those townships leaves the homeowner makes up for the lower tax base. Throw in Fannie Mae which gave loans to people who had little to no down payment & they were underwater on their mortgages after the 2008 recession started hitting. They need to reinvent their communities. Also, there seems to be a lot of unethical behavior from public officials in many of those communities, and it does cost big time after awhile. Just look at Chicgo as n example. No reason for their schools to spend that much. Too many administrators instead of spending it on quality curriculum… Read more »
Steve-Oh

Our American Revolution was ignited from less egregious taxation from King George. This really is “Pitchfork” time for the citizens……….except they voted for big govt for decades…..if not 80 years or more. I haven’t lived in Park Forest since 1973, and the last HS reunion back in ’13 was an eye-opener. Seemed 1/6th of houses were For Sale and another 1/6th For Rent, and many others run-down. Very sad, but with big-crushing govt…..a predictable catastrophe. It’s utterly amazing that there remain so many Libs who don’t think govt has exceeded its spending and taxing powers.

Arizona Bob
This isn’t some statutory problem with tax assessment, it’s a problem with schools sucking the life out of their communities without producing outcomes worth the prices. According to the state school report cards, Homewood Flossmoor spends a whopping $17,123 per student, Bloom $15,200, Rich township $18,407 and Thornton HS an incredible $19,584 per student for really poor quality of education according to student outcomes and students prepared for college. How much does a “rich” district spend? Sandburg-Stagg-Andrew district 230 HS only spends $15,043 with all that shopping center and commercial wealth. Even more concerning is how much these “poor” districts spend in non-instructional costs. HF spend about… Read more »
John Jones
The thing everyone is afraid to mention is the ethnic makeup of Cook County and many of the suburbs. Areas that have large black and to a lesser degree Hispanic populations see the area lose cohesion and crime go up to crazy amounts. All you have to do to see how this affects schools is look at schools with very few blacks or Hispanics. Even with very low per student spending the outcomes are markedly better in these places than those communities that are more “enriched”. Crime goes up and property values decrease when compared to less diverse areas. And as crime goes up and these ethnic… Read more »
Katmando
Just so you know, testing is killing our schools financially. The students nor staff benefit from the money is being spent. I suggest you read or skim the book, What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated. My student have already been tested twice this year (for data), will take the Common Core in March, take the Common Core again in April because they have to add Science, but the state forgot to make the test (by the way, Common Core is largely created in the UK and so are the materials, so most of the profits are realized by them, not us) Then in May, they… Read more »
nixit71
Let’s compare Matteson school districts (which also cover portions of nearby communities) to Oak Park: – Matteson SD 162: 3,200? students, 7 schools – Matteson SD 159: 2,100 students, 5 schools – Oak Park SD 97: 5,900 students, 10 schools That’s 2 superintendents and 2 business managers to manage less students than Oak Park. Furthermore, SD159 employs 3 part-time assistant superintendents @ $70K+/yr. SD162 has a deputy SI @ $150K and one 0.16 FTE makes $11K per year. I’m sure there are more questionable staffing decisions. Local/State/Fed funding %: SD162: 50/40/10 OP97 = 77/16/7 So if property taxes are already high for the South Burbs, and some… Read more »
mark glennon

Bob- Right, I did not look at the expenses driving the property taxes. I suspect you are right, though I also suspect that salary and pension costs far beyond inflation are major drivers, too. I documented that for Chicago police and firefighters in this article, and I believe similarities abound in other municipalities: http://www.wirepoints.com/salary-and-pension-hikes-far-beyond-inflation-account-for-most-of-chicago-property-tax-raise-wp-original/

Anonymous

I dont get why it seems like the effective rate is higher in the poorer areas Like in Lake County, why would the rate be higher in Waukegan than in Lake Forest. Isn’t there more industrial in Waukegan that should lower the residential there.
And I have the same question that Tony asked–isnt that what the equalizer is for? This doesn’t seem fair.

mark glennon

The equalizer only applies inter-county. That much I know, but I have never been able to see any rationality in the variance in assessments, either inter-county or within the same county.

Billy T

mark–your article focuses on the residential taxes. What is one of the big problems there is that so many of the smaller businesses that used to be in the area have made the short move over to Indiana. I used to make sales calls on all kinds of little parts companies,steel fabricators, retail stores, and factories selling computer products. I cant tell you how many of the businesses have left. And some went to Will , Kane and Grundy County also. There is no commercial base left to tax at the higher rates.

mark glennon

Billy T, you are absolutely right, based on so much that I have heard. Empirical evidence on the commercial side is lacking, but do we need it? Who in their right mind would build a commercial facility with rates averaging over 12%?

Jones

Madigan & friends did a number on the Purplish SW burbs in the last legislative redistricting. Some boundaries were drawn from these failing suburbs, and pulled West into the SW burbs. I remember a few years back seeing a Re-elect Monique “My Statue” Davis mailer at a house in Palos Heights. I thought this couldn’t be right. After checking the map, she does represent that area.

Sean
Like Mark, I too lived in Park Forest (we lived there from 1974-1980), then later moved to Hazel Crest. In Park Forest, I lived two minutes from Rich East High School, and my time in Park Forest was filled with some of my fondest memories. It was a great place to be a kid, and you never needed a ride anywhere. I definitely remember the clock tower as well. When I moved north, I attended Homewood Flossmoor High School, which was a very, very good school. Our class valedictorian went to Yale on an academic scholarship. Fast forward to the present. I met a man about a… Read more »
TONY

I’m no expert on this, but how can this happen. I thought we had an “equalizer” factor in this state that made everybody’s tax rate roughly equal. Or is this just another way we all get tricked and deceived.

Peter Quilici
In 2007 the union representing Chicago firemen and paramedics requested a stipend to help with property taxes because they were onerous. The logic was that because they were required to live in Chicago, they should receive assistance with the taxes. More accurately, they wanted assistance to pay for private schools for their kids and resented paying a property tax to fund failing schools they did not want their kids to attend. Understandable. If I recall, Mayor Daly told them !*?# off. The only rational way to look at Illinois property taxes is as part of a modern day feudal system. Instead of the local lords sending armoured… Read more »
Indiana

It doesn’t help the South Suburbs when Northwest Indiana is right there with the 1% cap in property taxes in the Indiana constitution.
No other state has that level of protection.

mark glennon

Indiana, that’s a very important point I was not aware of. Thanks for that addition.

Laura Burke

I wonder if that is the reasoning behind the restructuring of school funding in IN a few years ago; away from property tax based funding to state funded–because if there is a 1% property tax cap, it may have proved a detriment to adequately funding the schools. Just a thought–don’t have the time to dig into it.

Patrick

Laura,

Applaud Indiana for protecting the taxpayer and homeowners.

Illinois is a dead duck in the water.

Why? One word: democrats.

Democrats have effectively bankrupted Illinois.

And please tell why a majority of Chicago Public Teachers, (who have children) enroll their own children in private schools?

Bob
The lack of uniformity of assessed value on property is aggravating as all get out. Given the things I’ve seen when I’ve appealed or our lawyers have appealed, it’s no stretch to say if the assessor was a private business all the employees would be fired for being incompetent. I live in a condo complex out by O’Hare and what struck me the last time I researched property value was how a unit in an adjoining building with the exact same floor plan could have an assessed value $60K less than mine. This was not an apples to oranges comparison as with residential housing (unless you live… Read more »
Anonymous
Another issue that should be looked at is what has happened to the public schools out there. thirty years ago Rich Central, Rich East and some of he other public schools were pretty good. and HF was always ranked in the top 5 in the state. I looked the other day and they have all really slipped. Many people would say because of race problems, but it has to be related to other things like available resources, quality of teachers, etc. But who would buy a house if you have to pay 7, 8 or 9% of he value in property taxes? Great article
Kurtis
I grew up in Flossmoor and graduated from HF in the early 1990s. HF was a great school at the time, although the student body really started becoming more black apparently as a result of Section 8 Housing vouchers. The school had to hire security guards as a result of increased crime, and that was in the early 90s. I can only imagine what the crime is like now. The families of at least half of my fellow classmates moved within a few years of their kids graduating from HF and just about all of them have moved by now. I don’t understand why anyone in their… Read more »
Katmando

It’s not race problems. It’s total lack of parent responsibility to do anything to help their child. It’s now the school’s job. It’s hard parenting 24+
children!

Rick
This article made me want to look up my first starter home in midlothian which I bought in 1984 for $54000 and taxes were around 1500, my mortgage was at 12 percent. I sold it in 1997 for $117000. I see by Zillow its value peaked at $180000 in 2006, but today it’s estimated value is 125000, not much more than I sold it in 97. It’s taxes are $4000. So to a first time home buyer it’s still a good starter home I guess, close to the train. But the safety of the neighborhood is not nearly as good. And Robbins to the north was a… Read more »
Bruce

Can’t they enlist Madigan to help lower their tax bill? I’m sure he would help those that helped elect him to office…

Katmando

lol