Elephant in the Room: No Money, Mo’ Problems

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

“It’s a text-book example of institutional racism.”

This was University of Chicago Professor Chris Berry’s conclusion when he testified, last summer, before the County Board discussing the disparate impact felt by Cook County residents in their property tax assessments. If you’ve been following the news (or the election cycle), you may be aware that there have been some problems brewing with the Cook County Assessor’s Office. A study conducted by the University of Chicago showed a discrepancy where lower-priced homes were over-valued and higher-priced homes were lower-valued.  If this conclusion is correct, this system shifted the tax-paying burden to lower socio-economic neighborhoods; neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color.

The disparate implementation by the Assessor’s Office poses severe risks to lower-income neighborhoods—many people who often come to LAF seeking help. We see how the inability to keep a home decreases a family’s ability to create wealth; it requires them to make big financial sacrifices to keep their home—maybe their child’s college tuition can’t get paid, or they have to pick between paying the tax bill or medicine and groceries for the month. For those that can’t keep up with payments, they may feel forced to sell quickly, losing out on their investment. In dire cases, the county may sell the taxes to a tax-buyer and if the home owner cannot repay those taxes, the tax-buyer may take ownership of the home through a tax-deed.

This says nothing of the physical and mental stress people experience fighting to save their house, or the damage it inflicts on children who may have to move to new schools, or the depression an elderly parent may fall into when they can no longer afford their home.

Proponents of the current system argue that anyone has the right to appeal their assessment. And that is true, there is an appeals process. But just like so many complicated parts of our legal system, those that need access to this remedy have a more difficult time accessing it. U of C’s study found that wealthier neighborhoods appealed at a much higher rate than lower-value neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods also saw assessment reductions more frequently than poorer neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to be represented by attorneys as well. Attorneys, logically, target higher-income clients in order to reap higher rewards. In 2015, attorneys earned 22 million dollars in attorney’s fees involving assessment appeals. Unfortunately, for those living in lower-income neighborhoods, the return on investment for an attorney to file an appeal for a single-family home won’t match what that attorney could earn representing multi-unit condo associations. A person who is low-income, living in a low-income neighborhood, with a home that is valued high, but can only be sold for a much lower price, will be hard-pressed to find an affordable legal representative.

This is the gap LAF tries to bridge—we field calls from people on the verge of losing their home and our Consumer Practice Group steps in to help.  Some clients are advised on their right to appeal the tax assessment of their home. Other times we guide clients through obtaining the correct tax exemptions as home owners.  In cases where the clients have fallen too far behind in tax payments, we represent them in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows them to catch up on their payments in order to save their home.

The work we do doesn’t solve the disparate impact the assessor’s system has on our client communities, but by helping them fight in a system that is stacked against them, it reminds them that they have rights and tools available to protect their assets. More importantly, we create security and peace of mind for families who can return to their neighborhoods—to their homes–with the same sense of stability as those in richer zip-codes.

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