LOGAN SQUARE — In 1990, Silvia Gonzalez and her husband bought a squat brick house just a block from Monroe Elementary, the school Gonzalez attended as a child, for $95,000.
Gonzalez, 54, remembers the day their home loan was approved. It was also the day after their second son was born.
“A baby and an approval of a loan. … So we walked in here — first week of August 1990 — and for me it was like, ‘Wow, we did it.’ I’m an immigrant; I’m from Mexico. My husband is as well. I was 25 years old. … So, for us, this was big,” Gonzalez said.
The Gonzalezes have lived in the house, situated on Lawndale Avenue just south of Diversey Avenue, for nearly 30 years.
The home is all the Gonzalez kids, now ages 29, 27 and 33, have ever known. When the kids were young, they would run around the house and bicker with one another, filling the house with life, Gonzalez said. The two boys would spend their summers playing basketball in the backyard.
Over the years, Gonzalez said her house has become the go-to spot for family parties.
“When we celebrate New Year’s, everybody knows it’s at Silvia’s,” Gonzalez said.
But now, as the cost of living continues to climb in Logan Square, the Gonzalezes, despite having paid off their house in 2011, are at risk of getting priced out of the neighborhood.
Like many property owners in gentrifying Logan Square, the Gonzalezes were hit hard in the 2018 round of property tax assessments. Their bill went from $3,700 in 2017 to nearly $6,000 in 2018, according to Gonzalez. (The home’s market value was listed at $337,210 in 2018, according to Cook County property records.)
That hike has Gonzalez and her husband “seriously looking to move out” of their home.
“To me that’s a lot of money because you gotta take into account insurance and utilities,” Gonzalez said of the roughly $2,000 increase. Gonzalez works for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, while her husband works as a shipping supervisor.
Many others in Logan Square and neighboring Humboldt Park saw even steeper increases.
According to the data recently obtained by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), Logan Square in 2018 saw the highest property tax hike of any neighborhood in the city compared to the previous year.
The Northwest Side neighborhood saw a 24.09 percent increase in its median tax bill — more than 10 times the citywide average of 2.15 percent, data show.
Humboldt Park didn’t see nearly as high of an increase — the neighborhood only saw a 3.6 percent increase in 2018 compared to 2017, data show — but the neighborhood’s property values have gone way up in recent years thanks in part to The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail.
How to bring the property tax bills down and keep longtime and new residents in their homes is a question many in Logan Square are grappling with as new Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi settles into the job and looks to set himself apart from embattled former Assessor Joe Berrios.
‘Is This When People Normally Move?’
Clarence Fraher and his wife bought a cottage on Logan Square’s Stave Street in 2000 for $180,000. They lived in the home for 10 years before buying a larger house in neighboring Humboldt Park to accommodate their growing family. Fraher and his wife have been renting out the Logan Square cottage and living in the Humboldt Park home ever since.
Fraher said they knew both neighborhoods were changing, but they were still stunned when they got their 2018 property tax bill. Their Logan Square property tax bill jumped from about $4,900 in 2017 to about $8,600 in 2018, while their Humboldt Park property tax bill jumped from about $7,100 in 2017 to about $12,700 in 2018.
“My wife and I saw this and the first thing out of our mouths was: ‘Do we have to move? Is this when people normally move?'” Fraher said.
Fraher said the hike has his wife, who has never been a fan of his home state of Virgina, looking for houses in Virginia.
“That’s where we are now: My wife is considering moving to Richmond because of this. There’s nothing else that I could’ve said that could’ve put her there,” Fraher said.
In the meantime, Fraher and his wife determined they have to save around $300 a week to pay the bill. Fraher works in construction coordinating. His wife is a speech therapist. They have three kids, ages 10, 13 and 16.
“We’re going to have to tighten our belts and try and find some money. We have about a $14,000 payment due Aug. 1 and we don’t have all of that money,” Fraher said.
Like Gonzalez, Fraher doesn’t want to leave Logan Square or Chicago, for that matter.
“We love the schools. We love the location. We love everything, generally speaking. There’s so much to offer here,” Fraher said. “We’d like to maintain what we have if possible, but, at the same time, we also know that we can’t do everything that we want to do.”
Katie Wohlgenant, 32, and her husband bought their Logan Square home in 2017, but, after their 71 percent property tax hike, they’re already considering moving.
“As much as we love this city and we love this house, it might not make financial sense for us to stay here that much longer,” Wohlgenant said.
One Humboldt Park couple that asked to remain anonymous is so fed up by their 2018 property tax bill that they have decided to sell her home and travel the country by van to “see if there’s a spot that speaks to” them.
“I really like my job. I love the city of Chicago. I could stay here forever if things were the status quo. But we feel like this is the beginning with the pension crisis and the city becoming a tale of two cities,” the resident said.
The resident, who declined to be named because she has not yet told her employer about the move, said it’s also hard to justify paying $4,000 more in property taxes when the city is facing so many challenges, a sentiment shared by all of the residents interviewed by Block Club Chicago.
“We lost our neighborhood school, the streets are riddled with potholes and there’s gunshots. What are we paying for?” she said.
‘We Merely Stick To What The Math Tells Us’
In 2017, a Chicago Tribune report concluded assessments are so flawed in Chicago that people living in poorer neighborhoods tend to pay more in taxes as a percentage of their home’s value than residents in more affluent neighborhoods.
Assessor Fritz Kaegi defeated former old-school establishment Democrat Berrios in the wake of the Tribune series, promising greater transparency.
Scott Smith, spokesman for Kaegi, said Berrios and his administration are to blame for the 2018 massive property tax hike in Logan Square and other neighborhoods.
“Tax bills are always ‘in arrears’ so they are a reflection of the previous year’s re-assessments,” Smith said in an email. “The Assessor’s Office re-assess properties on what’s called a triennial basis: a third of the county is re-assessed each year.”
Smith said this year they’re reassessing the northern suburbs, in 2020 they’ll reassess the southern suburbs and in 2021 they’ll reassess Chicago. That means the first time Chicagoans will see the effects of Kaegi’s work is in 2022, he said.
Smith also said assessments are not the sole determining factor in someone’s tax bill. Property taxes go up when cities request more money for schools, libraries, police and fire pensions and other services, he said.
“The most important thing for people to know is property taxes are an 18-month process that involves many county offices: the assessor, the clerk, the Board of Review and the treasurer,” Smith wrote.
Asked what Kaegi will do to bring down the property tax bills in Logan Square and similar neighborhoods, Smith said they “don’t approach this work with an end result in mind.”
“We merely stick to what the math tells us and assess properties based on market value. To cut a break to one neighborhood or property type over another neighborhood or property owner means someone ends up paying more than their fair share. That’s what we’re committed to reversing,” Smith said.
In addition to “working to correct past errors,” the Assessor’s office is working to reform the system at the state level. Smith said his office helped pass a bill, HB 833, which will make senior exemptions renew automatically, and is now pushing for another bill that recently passed the Illinois Senate, SB 1379, which aims to make commercial assessments more accurate.
“Increases in property taxes are due to increases in city and suburban budgets to pay for services like schools, parks, libraries and pensions. But when it comes to our office, we’re working as quickly as possible to reform our use of data, technology, and processes, so that the average taxpayer doesn’t feel forced out of their home by high tax bills,” Smith wrote.
‘It’s Not My Community’
Having lived in her Lawndale Avenue house for nearly 30 years and in Logan Square for closer to 40, Gonzalez has had to watch many of her neighbors, friends and family members leave the neighborhood in search of cheaper housing.
“People I knew here, they sold their house,” Gonzalez said, gesturing to the house across the street. “We used to call him ‘neighbor.’ Well, he had to sell. He couldn’t anymore.”
Gonzalez continued, saying, “Over here, we used to have [another neighbor]. She sold. She went to Berwyn. … You see that fence over there with the pillars and the gates? [That neighbor] moved and went to Mexico. … A cousin of mine lived in that gray house — she couldn’t afford it anymore, moved to Berwyn.”
Gonzalez said while she, too, is thinking about selling her house and moving elsewhere if property tax hikes continue, no place will compare to Lawndale Avenue.
“I could probably get a cheaper house on the South Side or in Berwyn. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my community,” she said.
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