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Property tax brouhaha highlights work of Westside Justice Center

Tanya Woods (left), with West Side homeowner Gloria Julia Lahus, at the Westside Justice Center in East Garfield Park, where Lahus came to seek help to pay her property taxes. | Provided photo

Standing shoulder to shoulder with politicians, Tanya Woods spoke eloquently of the legal minefields that often implode already fragile existences for the poor.

Woods, 48, executive director of the year-old nonprofit Westside Justice Center, embraced the spotlight offered by a tax relief campaign that began last month to help low-income homeowners at risk of losing their homes because they were unable to pay tax bills.

The East Garfield Park center was tapped to administer a $150,000 loan fund announced by politicians decrying a new state law that chopped a 12-month grace period to eight months.

Facing an April 3 tax scavenger sale deadline, Woods’ small agency vetted hundreds of applicants for loans from the fund established by businessman, philanthropist and former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, who later made the loans a gift. Woods’ agency did it in little more than a week.

“It’s definitely not the norm, but it was important,” said Woods, a widow who lives in Beverly. “Because of the shortened time period homeowners were given to come up with the money to pay that tax bill, Cook County poor were severely impacted, thousands in jeopardy of losing their homes.”

After black community leaders including Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and inner-city pastors sounded the alarm, the Illinois House on Thursday passed a bill sponsored by State Rep. Elgie Sims that seeks to roll back the April 3 tax scavenger sale deadline. It’s now before the Senate.

“This situation came to our attention in the Legislature just this week,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan. “It’s designed to delay by a few months the sale scheduled for Monday. Hopefully, it can be taken up by the Senate, passed and signed by the governor.”

Tanya Woods (right), executive director of the Westside Justice Center in East Garfield Park, with Englewood homeowner Sharon Davis at Rainbow PUSH. Davis sought help paying property taxes on a home she’s lived in for 43 years. She said she was injured on
Tanya Woods (right), executive director of the Westside Justice Center in East Garfield Park, with Englewood homeowner Sharon Davis at Rainbow PUSH. Davis sought help paying property taxes on a home she’s lived in for 43 years. She said she was injured on the job in 2013, and hasn’t worked since. | Provided photo

Woods is hopeful because 6,400 Cook County homeowners remain unaware their tax debt is up for sale, their bills returned by the post office. It’s this population she often sees filing through the doors of the Westside Justice Center, 601 S. California.

“We’re a holistic legal aid clinic. People may present with one problem, but they usually have a host of other legal issues that go along with it,” said Woods, who attended law school late in life, after her husband’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolism left her searching for a mission.

“They may come in with a home in foreclosure. We help them get past that, but find they need to do property tax appeals, or haven’t applied for applicable homeowner exemptions,” Woods said.

“That’s what made us a great collaborator on the property tax issue. We do this kind of work every day. People need help navigating systems. They receive documents and they don’t understand them, especially the elderly,” she said. “We also see people living in homes since their parents were alive, but now parents are deceased. They’ve never owned or managed a home in their lives, so have no idea how to navigate, let alone understand the home could be sold or taken away from them.”

The West Side Justice Center is actually the nonprofit arm of a 2-year-old building by the same name, stretching a block long at California and Harrison.

The refurbished warehouse became an incubator for firms offering legal and quasi-legal services — the brainchild of Brendan Shiller, son of former 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller. His firm, Shiller Preyar, LLP, and a second midsize firm, Burch & Associates, are the building’s anchors.

“Once we opened up in this lawyer desert, people started streaming in, and we found they fell into an income or service gap, where they really couldn’t afford legal services,” Brendan Shiller said. “There was nowhere to refer them. We decided we needed to create a system, a navigational service, to find the community these legal services that they needed.”

Enter Woods. Specializing in immigration law and mediation, she had decided to hang her own shingle last year. “When I came along, they were looking for volunteer attorneys to take some of these cases. I began to recommend systems and procedures and do outreach to other attorneys to join me in doing some of this intake,” Woods said. She was soon asked to be co-executive director.

Like Shiller, Woods grew up in politics. Her mother, Carolyn Edmonds, was entrenched in the black political movement of the late 70s and early 80s. Edmonds was a longtime administrative assistant to then-Ald. Danny Davis, now congressman, and after the election of Mayor Harold Washington, she served as assistant to then-Deputy Mayor Kari Moe on the fifth floor.

“I’ve always been drawn toward public service,” Woods says. “For right now, I’ve found my mission.”