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Cook County Treasurer partners with Operation PUSH to save senior homes

The outreach campaign has brought Maria Pappas and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, full circle on this issue.

According to the Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ estimates, there are $43 million in missing senior citizen property tax exemptions and an estimated $79 million in refunds available to be claimed.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Charles Rhodes, 66, was a toddler when his parents built a home in the 9200 block of South Indiana Avenue.

That home became their legacy.

Now, a senior citizen and heir, Rhodes had difficulty keeping up with the paperwork that would have kept the property off the tax sale list.

“Like a lot of people, I’m not good with paperwork and things and don’t understand the system and what you have to do,” Rhodes told me in a telephone interview.

He was among the homeowners who took advantage of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ outreach campaign that brought her employees to several wards and to Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters on the South Side.

Rhodes went to a workshop sponsored by Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th) and discovered he had a hefty refund coming.

He was also able to apply for a homeowner’s and senior citizen property tax exemption, which resulted in his home being removed for the tax sale list.

“It turned out to be a great boon to my life and it saved me a lot of money. It worked out to my benefit, and I am so happy,” he told me.

The outreach campaign has brought Pappas and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, full circle on this issue.

In 2000, a then-76-year-old West Side woman lost the deed to her home after her taxes were purchased when she missed a tax installment five years earlier. When she failed to redeem her property, an investor later purchased the tax deed.

Jackson led a rally on the woman’s front porch and successfully brokered a deal with the tax investor to get the woman’s home back.

Today he is partnering with Pappas to make sure senior homeowners don’t end up on the street because of neglected paperwork.

“Jackson called me, and we found out we owed him $4,000 because he was missing property tax exemptions. If Jackson doesn’t know about the exemptions, this is a serious, serious problem,” said Pappas.

“We sent somebody down there [Operation PUSH] and started processing people, and it really worked out well,” she said.

The PUSH effort started April 2 and has been extended indefinitely. So far the outreach has resulted in 131 applications for refunds.

“We are sending out letters today to all the aldermen that show what properties have gotten sold in their wards and a spreadsheet that shows whether or not that person got their senior and their homeowner’s exemptions,” Pappas told me.

Identifying eligible homeowners and helping them apply for the exemptions could remove hundreds of properties from the tax sale list.

Because the exemptions are not automatic, the biggest barrier to seniors is time.

I’m finding that as I age, it gets harder to keep up with paperwork. Frankly, just filling out an application can seem overwhelming at times.

I have to thank the treasurer for recognizing that.

“They get the notice in the mail and they think it is a “Bed, Bath and Beyond” coupon and put it in the trash. Jackson didn’t do the exemptions for four years. If he didn’t figure it out, how many other people out here aren’t doing it?” Pappas asked.

According to the treasurer’s estimates, there are $43 million in missing senior citizen property tax exemptions and an estimated $79 million in refunds available to be claimed.

Under the extended outreach campaign, a representative from the treasurer’s office will be at PUSH four days a week: Tuesdays from noon to 7 p.m.; Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Seniors should bring their driver’s license or state ID. Those seniors with an annual income of $65,000 or less should also bring proof of income.

“We are telling aldermen to send everybody to PUSH because most seniors don’t feel safe coming downtown where it costs $40 bucks just to park,” Pappas pointed out.

“They are going to start busing people from other churches to Operation PUSH so they can participate as well,” she said.

Rhodes, who lives in the 9th Ward, attended the tax workshop at a church in Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s 6th Ward.

“My parents died in 1986 and 1988. I moved back home in 1984 and have continued to stay here. I have no plans of ever leaving,” he said.

But these exemptions won’t help seniors if they aren’t able to access them.

So if you have an elderly neighbor that likely qualifies for this benefit, please pass this information along.