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Saving Black homes lost to tax inequity

A decades-old practice of selling tax debt is still causing families to lose their homes

Deborah D. Douglas

Chicagoan Lovie Miles has seen how easy it is to lose a home because of unpaid property taxes — even when that debt is just less than $1,000.

“I used to work across the street from City Hall,” says Miles, who has owned her home for 42 years. “So I saw what happens when people lose their property: People who want to invest in some property, they’re down there in line to put money down on your house.”

If homeowners like Miles have an unpaid tax balance of any amount, those taxes on their property can be sold to another buyer. In Cook County, where Chicago is located, there are two major tax sales per year where this can occur. The homeowner then has to pay the taxes owed, plus interest and fees to keep their home.

To help homeowners, Cook County has discounts for residents, such as exemptions for senior citizens, returning veterans, and people with disabilities. There is even an exemption that allows homeowners to increase their home’s value with up to $75,000 of improvements without increasing property taxes for at least four years.

Miles knew this fact, she says, so she went down to City Hall twice to see if she could lower her taxes. Both times she was told she was not eligible for any discounts.

This would not be the end of Miles’ story.

For decades, tax liens — working in tandem with unfair property assessments — have disproportionately caused Black Americans to lose their homes in cities across the United States. In Cook County, a majority of tax evictions happen in Black neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, where Miles lives, according to a report by Housing Action Illinois. And during the twice-a-year tax sales, 75% of tax debt offered for sale are for homes in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Losing one’s home because of unpaid taxes hurts not only homeowners and their families but entire communities, according to University of Chicago Prof. Chris Berry, and Max Schmidt, authors of “Selling Distress: How the Tax Foreclosure System Exacerbates Disinvestment in Cook County Communities.”

Investors who buy foreclosed properties frequently sit on them and aren’t given incentives to reinvest or maintain those homes, until they deteriorate, according to a 2022 University of Chicago study examining how 13 cities handle tax delinquency. This cycle contributes to neighborhood decay and exists in places such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Columbus, Ohio.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we look at where these properties are geographically distributed, they are predominantly in low-income neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color, and communities that have higher rates of things like asthma, chronic disease, and lower health care access,” Schmidt told The Emancipator.

“The other thing is when your property base deteriorates to this point, local communities themselves become unable to invest in public-health services: Things like keeping their hospitals and their community clinics open become more and more difficult as these communities enter this cycle of population decline.”

Berry adds: “It’s a question of what’s the symptom and what’s the disease? In many cases, I see these tax delinquencies as really being more of a symptom of this underlying disinvestment.

The process of paying tax debt, even knowing how much is owed, can be difficult to navigate alone, and it led Kimberly Salley, executive director of Sunshine Gospel Ministries, and Janice Williams Miller, director of The BLOCK Movement, to team up and create the Tax Sale Benevolence Program (TSBP) in 2021.

Using donations and COVID relief funds (with permission from a private donor), the TSBP helps homeowners in the Woodlawn neighborhood, where Sunshine is located, pay their back taxes and budget for their homes.

The program found that Miles was, in fact, entitled to exemptions. They worked with her to help her pay what she owed, adding financial support to what Miles could pay. Miles also says she expects her taxes will be less next year, which will help her stay on track of her payments.

But to find people to help is hard work in itself.

“There was a lot of legwork that needed to be done to try to get to the individuals that needed the help,” Salley says. “So it was an arduous process, to say the least.”

From left to right: Kimberly Salley, executive director of Sunshine Gospel Ministries; Kayla Williams, project manager at Sunshine Gospel Ministries; Tracy Stanciel, curriculum director at The BLOCK Movement; and Janice Williams Miller, managing director of The BLOCK Movement.Deborah D. Douglas

Salley, Miller, and their colleague, Tracy Stanciel, reached out to the Cook County Treasurer’s Office, which created a database of properties and owners with tax debt. The three women then worked to whittle down the list of the almost 300 properties. They drove by each location to differentiate vacant lots and abandoned homes from homes that were seemingly occupied.

Then, they left flyers at each property, often visiting multiple times to try to reach the owner. Sometimes, homeowners didn’t even know they owed any taxes. But to Miles, this hard work didn’t go unappreciated.

“To me, it was a great idea for them to come around in the community and put their flyer in [residents’] lobby or doorway,” Miles says. “I think that was the greatest thing they could have done.”

Participants are placed in cohorts. If participants make two quarterly tax payments within a year, the program will match those payments so that they are now paid in full for the year. That way, they can start on the right footing for the next tax year. Thirty-six families have been helped to date.

Education on budgeting and accessing other opportunities, such as loans and grants for homeowners who are up-to-date on tax payments, is also a huge part of the program.

Homeowners who are simply struggling to pay their taxes in an arcane, unfair system that frequently overtaxes them must have options.

William Hill, a landscape designer who beautifies front and backyards throughout Chicago, is a program participant. His home has been in his family since 1947 when his grandfather purchased it after World War II with money from his G.I. bill. He moved back into the home around 2002 with his husband, James Van Den Boogart, and says he values what he’s learned in these educational sessions and found out about resources he didn’t know were available.

“I’ve learned a lot about budgeting and that was really key,” he says. “It helped out a lot, really it did, as far as just being aware how important budgeting is to pay major bills, like your basic taxes for housing.”

Although the TSBP team has become extremely knowledgeable in navigating individual tax problems, each program participant has a different need and there is not always visibility into the status of those tax issues on the Cook County Treasurer’s Office website. Miller and Salley say their partnership with the office helps to fill in that information gap.

And the benefit of working collectively goes both ways, says Hal Dardick, the office’s director of research affairs. Dardick says while working with the program before the first big tax sale, homeowners would try to pay their tax debt and realized there were other bills that were owed.

“But what we realized is they had prior delinquencies that weren’t solved, and for them to really get out of trouble, they had to pay off those things, too,” Dardick says. “And they may have had other encumbrances on the home, and so, we realized it was much more complex.”

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas launched her Black Houses Matter program in 2020, later extended to Black and Latino Houses Matter, in an attempt to rectify many of the harms the county’s unequal tax system. She’s created initiatives such as a weekly radio show on the Chicago Black talk radio station WVON to answer resident questions and a phone bank to help callers check for exemptions and any money they may be eligible to receive.

But it’s the hands-on outreach work that the TSBP does that helps to connect people to these types of opportunities, and like Dardick explains: “It’s a huge amount of work.”

William Hill, homeowner from Chicago’s southside Woodlawn community.Deborah D. Douglas

Building this kind of trust with homeowners and their families and working with individual cases requires a great deal of manpower and financial capital. Right now, the team starts about a month before each tax sale.

“We definitely need to duplicate ourselves,” Salley says. “Aside from the human resources of being able to have a staff, we need to be able to pay people to be vested, to be consistent … That’s the only capacity we have, but when we can put full-time effort and energy to that, I know our impact can be greater.”

To expand such an initiative city or countywide would demand more resources. Additionally, Salley and Miller say their participants often need more help, such as legal help from attorneys or contractors to assist with improvements.

“When we first found out about this, there were 58,000 homes on the list across the county,” Miller says. “And so when we think about our handful of families that we’ve helped, it is really wonderful, it is good, but it is very easy to [think] we should be able to do more because it’s just the problem is enormous.”

Berry underscores that governments have a legitimate need to deal with property owners who are the real scofflaws, or have abandoned their property and abuse the system by not paying their taxes. But homeowners who are simply struggling to pay their taxes in an arcane, unfair system that frequently overtaxes them must have options.

“I want to emphasize you can’t understand this whole system without starting by understanding that often these taxes were unfair to begin with, that people were overtaxed to begin with,” Berry says. “Identify those people who are homeowners who have invested in their home and in their community that are just struggling to stay there. They need a different solution that doesn’t take them immediately to a tax lien or a tax sale.”

Schmidt is heartened by these community-driven efforts created by the likes of Miller and Salley, and even Pappas agrees this is a small-scale initiative for a much larger issue:

“Listen,” he says, “if you want real impact here, you need to think bigger and think at a higher level and really be approaching some of these structural issues, and that’s a really tough thing for elected officials to swallow.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Sunshine’s neighborhood to Woodlawn and to clarify that a private donor authorized funds for the program.

Arionne Nettles is a Chicago-based journalist and a lecturer and director of audio journalism programming at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.