CHICAGO — Husband and wife Claudia Galeno-Sanchez and Leone Jose Bicchieri have weathered property tax hikes every year, reducing their bills with appeals, since buying their Pilsen home in 2016.
But that streak ended in 2022. The couple is stuck paying a bill that went up 24.5 percent.
The property tax struggle is all around them. Galeno-Sanchez and Bicchieri run the neighborhood nonprofits Working Family Solidarity and Women for Green Spaces, and many of their group members have reached out for help appealing their property tax bills, they said.
Group members are also getting calls from landlords saying they’ll have to increase their tenants’ rent, Galeno-Sanchez said.
“There is a lot of desperation right now,” she said. “Everywhere is getting super expensive. This isn’t just a fight for the homeowners.”
Chicago homeowners shouldered the tax burden last year despite Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s efforts to level the playing field after his embattled predecessor Joe Berrios’ assessments were proven to be inaccurate and unfair.
In this latest round of assessments under Kaegi, homeowners in rapidly gentrifying working-class neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Avondale and Rogers Park were hit the hardest, according to an analysis by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ office.
Homeowners are struggling to pay thousands more to keep their homes, and some landlords are passing increases onto their tenants, furthering displacement.
“We’re seeing alarm from our Latinx homeowners who’ve been in the community for a very long time,” said Juliet De Jesus Alejandre, executive director of Logan Square-based community organization Palenque LSNA.
“There’s a sense of betrayal, that I did everything I was supposed to do, buy a home, provide for my family, and now the city is allowing my property taxes to double. There’s also this sense of anger: What am I going to do now? What support is there?”
Why Did Property Tax Bills Go Up?
Cook County property taxes rose $614 million, hitting $16.7 billion last year. Homeowners received 54 percent of the increase, while commercial properties picked up 46 percent, Pappas’ office’s analysis found.
Kaegi mostly blames the appeal board — the Cook County Board of Review — for the strain on homeowners.
If Kaegi’s original calculations had stuck, homeowners’ bills would’ve decreased by 8 percent, Cook County Assessor’s Office spokesman Scott Smith said. Instead, the Board of Review approved too many reductions for commercial property owners, which shifted the tax burden to homeowners, Smith said.
The Board of Review has balked at that claim, saying Kaegi has made “numerous” errors in calculating assessments, according to the Tribune.
Still, the Board of Review is just one piece of the puzzle. “There are a lot of obscure pieces of the tax system” that contributed to higher-than-expected assessments, Smith said.
Bills also went up because of a new state law that allows governments to correct property over-assessments and “recapture” refunds and on account of the city’s levy, which asked for more money last year than it did the previous year, Smith and Pappas’ office said.
Hot neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Avondale saw large increases in part because those communities have become more desirable places to live, which has in turn jacked up land value, Smith said.
“Assessments aren’t a cause of gentrification, but they definitely measure gentrification,” Smith said.
‘Nobody Is Helping A Small Landlord’
Homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods are feeling the squeeze of last year’s property tax hikes, worried they won’t be able to keep their properties for much longer if large increases become the norm.
Marco Trusewych is questioning whether he wants to hold on to his Logan Square property, a home that’s been in his family for generations, after receiving his latest tax bill.
Trusewych’s family bought a two-flat greystone on Diversey Avenue in 1959. Trusewych’s grandparents raised his father in the building, his father and uncle inherited it and Trusewych bought out his uncle, leaving him and his father as the sole owners. Trusewych lives in one unit and rents out the top floor.
An architect whose company is based in Denver, Trusewych has considered leaving Chicago and moving closer to work. His latest property tax bill pushed him closer to the edge of selling, he said.
The bill for the Diversey Avenue greystone went from a little more than $9,500 in 2020 to about $14,000, a 47 percent increase.
Trusewych said he won’t be able to make important building improvements, like buying a new furnace.
“I was hoping it would be my retirement fund,” Trusewych said of the home. “But I don’t know; maybe it’s my relocation fund.”
Josh Gartler said he felt “panic, despair, anger and frustration” when he received the bill for his brick two-flat on Whipple Street in Logan Square, an investment property he’s owned for more than 20 years.
Gartler’s bill rose to almost $26,000, more than $15,400 over the previous year, about a 145 percent increase.
Gartler has two tenants and lives in another home in the neighborhood. The Whipple Street property has a coach house, which may have contributed to the increase, but Gartler was stunned by the final assessment.
Gartler is appealing the assessment, but if he doesn’t win, he’ll be forced to hike up the rent on his loyal tenants.
“I don’t know how we can continue to do this, keep pushing the property taxes up and up and say gentrification happens,” Gartler said.
“We’re giving tax breaks and TIF funds to large developers to build big buildings that include some affordable housing, and I’m for the affordable housing, but nobody is helping a small landlord keep their property. What’s going to happen if I decide to sell my property or upgrade my property to maximize the rents?”
In Logan Square, the median tax bill increased by 18 percent, according to Pappas’ office. But the 35th Ward, which includes part of Logan Square, saw bills go up 24 percent, according to Axios.
‘Now You’re Hurting People’
Valeria Curwin Krilis spent last year getting her business back on track following a devastating two years under the pandemic.
As a self-employed costume designer, Curwin Krilis’ livelihood depends on live shows taking place. Those came back last year, but business has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, she said.
So it didn’t help when she was hit with a large property tax increase.
The two-flat Curwin Krilis owns on Greenview Avenue in Rogers Park saw its property bill rise to more than $9,500, a nearly $3,000 increase over the previous year. Her second yearly installment came out to $5,932, almost double her first installment of $3,587.
“Coming off being out of work and getting hit in the face with this sizable increase?” Curwin Krilis said. “Supposedly you were helping people through the pandemic — and now you’re hurting people.”
Curwin Krilis bought her Rogers Park two-flat in 2002. She lives in one unit and has two tenants, including one in a garden apartment.
The cost of using the washer and dryer in the building went up recently as she sought to contend with rising water and gas bills, she said. Some of the increased property tax bill will have to be passed on to her renters, a fact that doesn’t sit well with her.
One of Curwin Krilis’ tenants is a Northwestern University student on a fixed income, and she finds it unsavory to raise rents on good tenants.
“I’m going to keep it to $10 to $15, but it has to be something,” she said of raising rents.
Rogers Park was among the neighborhoods to see the steepest increase in property taxes. The 49th Ward, which includes Rogers Park, saw tax bills rise nearly 24 percent, according to Axios.
“In my mind, things should have stayed frozen. There are still people out of work or finding new jobs,” Curwin Krilis said.
‘We Don’t Want To Leave’
Communities that saw the steepest property tax increases continue to lose affordable housing stock in favor of pricey apartments and trendy businesses, one of many factors driving up assessments.
Community leaders are pushing for reforms to the property tax system while also scrambling to help homeowners and renters as housing costs mount.
Palenque LSNA is offering cash assistance to families in need, De Jesus Alejandre said.
Galeno-Sanchez and Bicchieri, leaders of the Pilsen nonprofits, have been helping people fill out Board of Review assessment complaints and educating people on the exemptions they might not know about.
It’s hard not to worry about longtime residents and business owners being driven out of Pilsen as home prices, rents and taxes increase, they said.
“We don’t want to leave,” Galeno-Sanchez said. “This is our neighborhood.”