This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Local Elections Scholars Series. If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Mirya Holman at email@example.com.
Above Picture: Stephen Spielberg, playing the Cook County Assessor in The Blues Brothers.
By Amanda Kass
Assessors play an important role in the property tax process in the United States. A homeowner’s taxes are based on the estimated value of their home, and that estimate is made by the assessor. If an assessor over- or under-values a property, then the homeowner will be over- or under-taxed. Over-taxation can produce a cascade of negative consequences, including foreclosure for failure to pay property taxes, while cities want to maintain high collection rates.
Assessors can be elected positions, but rarely do voters know much about the candidates or the position. This is largely true in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago and many inner suburbs. In 2018, however, the office became the focal point of a heated primary race after a Chicago Tribune/ProPublica Illinois series (aided by Dr. Christopher Berry’s research) exposed how current assessor Joe Berrios’ assessment system for residential properties was flawed and regressive (subsequent reporting highlighted flaws in commercial assessments too).
The Chicago Tribune/ProPublica Illinois series highlighted how Assessor Berrios’ office was already undervaluing more expensive properties in its initial assessments, and those properties’ assessments were then systematically lowered once more (and thus undertaxed) because owners of higher-value homes appealed their property values at far greater rates than homeowners of lower priced homes. Cook County is highly segregated, and the wealthiest neighborhoods are typically majority-white while the lowest-income neighborhoods are often majority black or Latinx. The assessment system thus had racially disparate impacts, resulting in black and Latinx homeowners being especially over-assessed.
Due to the political landscape of Cook County, winning the Democratic primary all but guarantees a candidate will be elected to office in the November general election. As such, the Cook County Assessor’s race was really decided by the March 2018 primary. Fritz Kaegi, campaigning on reforming the assessment system, challenged Berrios. (A third candidate, Andrea Raila, also ran on a reformist platform but was embroiled in a legal back-and-forth about the legitimacy of her ballot petitions for much of the campaign and came in a distant third.) Throughout much of the campaign season, Berrios denied that his office’s assessment system was flawed, but the Tribune/ProPublica Illinois reporting, along with a report by the Civic Consulting Alliance (commissioned by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle) proved his denials false. On election night, Kaegi easily won the democratic primary.
Kaegi’s campaign focused on correcting the flawed assessment system. Doing so, however, will likely cause property taxes for homeowners with more expensive homes to increase significantly. Berrios has already implemented changes to the assessment system and affected homeowners have expressed concern over increases in their assessed values. Kaegi is likely to face further political pushback, and changes in the assessment system could be compounded by increased property tax levies.
Kaegi overwhelmingly won in many of the neighborhoods that are the most likely to see their assessed values (and by extension property taxes) increase, while Berrios won in many of the neighborhoods where his office was responsible for over-valuations and over-taxing. It is unclear whether high-property-wealth homeowners, who are likely to see their assessments and taxes increase from Kaegi’s election, realized the impact of his proposed reforms when they voted for him. The role of voter and candidate race in the voting patterns that materialized on election night also deserves attention.
The Democratic primary for Cook County Assessor was not just politically important for homeowners in the county, but also raises a number of interesting research questions for scholars. A worthy subject is examining the voting patterns in depth to understand why different groups of people voted for Kaegi versus Berrios and what implications those voting patterns may have for reform efforts. A second topic concerns the history of assessments in Cook County as the regressivity today mirrors findings from research done in the 1970s on Cook County’s assessment system.
Has Cook County’s assessment system always been regressive and it is the politics around flawed assessments that ebbs and flows, or has the accuracy of the Cook County assessment system changed over time? Related, it is unclear to what extent the regressivity in Cook County’s assessment system is tied to the housing bubble and bust of the 2000s. In other words, are unfair property assessments a lingering effect of the Great Recession? There is also evidence to suggest that Cook County is not alone in having a flawed assessment system and examination of property assessment systems in other places in the United States could shed light onto how widespread the problem of regressivity is, as well as links between structural racism and unequal property assessments.
About the Author
Amanda Kass is the Associate Director of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. Amanda is also a doctoral candidate in Urban Planning and Policy at UIC. Her research concerns the relationships between urban governance, financialization, and racial inequality. Follow Amanda on Twitter @Amanda_Kass. Her work can be found here: https://amandakass.blog/