CHICAGO — Sticker shock doesn’t begin to describe the feeling for many homeowners in Pilsen who opened their property tax bills at the end of the year and saw they owed three times more than they were expecting.

“As soon as the bill came out I panicked,” said Olga Andrade.

She and her husband Jorge Saldana bought their Pilsen three-flat in 2004 when it was a fixer-upper. Now they’re raising four boys there – their oldest live in a unit upstairs.

Their first installment payment was about $2,900. Their new bill rang in at more than $8,600. That means their monthly mortgage payments are skyrocketing.

“I mean who in their right mind from one day to another can just say, ‘Oh, I’ll just throw another thousand dollars into my mortgage?’” Saldana said.

SEE ALSO | Cook County property tax hike riles homeowners: ‘What would constitute such a big increase?’

Homeowners in Pilsen saw an average 47% increase in their property tax bills, and it’s not just families feeling the financial whiplash.

“We are in peril,” said Juan Giron, owner of Giron Books.

Giron’s Spanish-language bookstore has served Pilsen for nearly 40 years. He imports books from Mexico and Spain and sells them across the country to mom-and-pop shops and big online retailers like Amazon. He keeps the storefront for his neighborhood.

“We conserve and we preserve our culture and our heritage,” he said.

But the future of Giron Books isn’t guaranteed. Giron’s property tax bill jumped from $26,000 a year to $44,000 a year, and that’s after he says he appealed it down from more than $80,000.

“It is telling us move on, get out, you can’t pay this,” he said.

So why are some, especially in Pilsen, seeing their costs soar?

Let’s start with the big picture. An analysis from the Cook County Treasurer’s Office found property taxes countywide rose $614 million to $16.7 billion for the 2021 tax year. Homeowners were responsible for paying more than half of that increase.

That’s part of the problem right there, says Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi. His office is responsible for estimating the value of properties. Those assessments are used to determine what share of the tax pie each property owner pays.

“I think one of the biggest drivers in communities where bills went up is actually revisions at the Board of Review,” Kaegi said.

Kaegi says under his assessments, homeowners should have been paying a smaller piece of the pie than businesses, but big commercial property owners who didn’t like his valuations appealed them to the county’s Board of Review. Kaegi says they got what they wanted: their collective tax burden slashed by 24 percent. That means homeowners have to pay more to make up the difference.

“That averaged about $700 per home of additional tax that they wouldn’t have paid otherwise,” Kaegi said.

One of those big commercial properties is the Old Post Office. County records of an appraisal show it’s worth $1.1 billion. Kaegi’s office put its value at $800 million. But the property owners argued to the Board of Review it was worth only $600 million, citing the pandemic’s impact on office spaces downtown among other reasons. The Board agreed and assessed its value at $630 million.

“Which in my opinion and others was unjust,” said Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele. “It just shifts the tax burden onto everyone else.”

Steele is one of the new commissioners of the Board of Review. She took office in December well after that Old Post Office decision. And she’s promising change to improve the board’s work.

“Just ensuring that each individual assessment is as accurate as possible is really the avenue we need to look at — and ensuring the staff have the resources they need,” she said.

Kaegi says one way he’s trying to lower tax bills is by bringing the values of 600 of the biggest properties downtown back to where his office set them, hoping the new Board of Review makes different decisions on appeal this time and puts money back in the pockets of homeowners.

Another factor in rising property taxes is what’s called the “recapture provision.” For the first time, a change in the state’s tax code allowed local governments to recoup what they had to refund on appeals the previous year. That added more than $130 million to bills.

Another new commissioner on the Board of Review, former Alderman George Cardenas, says the methodology the board uses doesn’t necessarily change under new leadership.

“It isn’t as simple as someone just saying, ‘Blame the Board of Review people because they’re the ones changing the values.’ There’s a lot more complexity to it,” he said.

Pilsen is in his district.

“It’s called a hot neighborhood, one of the hottest neighborhoods in the country,” he said.

That’s factor impacting property values – and taxes – there. New-construction homes and remodels are popping on the same blocks where other homes haven’t been touched. 

Assessor Kaegi acknowledged in a meeting with neighbors that his assessment system compares apples to oranges.

“We need to get better data, especially for homes that have not been renovated, so we don’t count those homes the same way as the ones that have been,” Kaegi said.

What’s at stake are the very places that make Pilsen the community so many want to call home.

“This mosaic fabric… has many threads, and so when we are threatened with high taxes, the thread begins to unravel. We begin to lose the important businesses that never come back,” Giron said.

Not to mention the people. Olga Andrade and her husband Jorge may be forced to uproot their family if they can’t figure out a way to afford the house they bought almost two decades ago.

“Are we going to keep on struggling and struggling and struggling all the time?” Andrade said.


Photojournalists Kevin Doellman, Erik Arendt, Steve Scheuer, and Joe Lynn contributed to this report